Nussmeier steps up, LSU rallies late to beat Wisconsin in the ReliaQuest Bowl

Published 6:16 pm Monday, January 1, 2024

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Garrett Nussmeier showed why LSU is confident he’s capable of thriving as Jayden Daniels’ successor.

The 13th-ranked Tigers (10-3) launched the team’s post-Daniels era with a 35-31, come-from-behind victory over Wisconsin in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Monday, with a calm Nussmeier leading a 98-yard drive to produce the winning touchdown in the closing minutes.

“You do what you have to do to win the football game. It doesn’t matter if you start from the 1, the 2 … you just stick to the process play-by-play, move the chains, move the chains and put the ball in the end zone,” the third-year sophomore said.

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“That doesn’t just speak to me, it speaks to our entire group,” Nussmeier added. “You can’t do it by yourself. And to go 98 yards with the game on the line, that means a lot to me. To be the leader of the offense, that matters more.”

Stepping in to make his first college start after Daniels — the 2023 Heisman Trophy winner — opted out to begin preparing for the NFL draft, Nussmeier completed 31 of 45 passes for 395 yards, three TDs and one interception.

The 21-year-old, who backed up Daniels for two seasons after the Heisman winner transferred to LSU from Arizona State, tossed TD passes of 14 yards to Chris Hilton Jr. and 38 and 4 yards to Brian Thomas Jr., whose second score put LSU ahead for the first time with 3:08 remaining.

Nussmeier fueled the eight-play winning drive with completions of 37 yards to Kyren Lacy and 43 yards to Hilton. Thomas finished with eight catches for 98 yards, while Lacy had six receptions for 97 yards.

“He hasn’t had many of those rehearsed situations. His ability to manage the moment. His ability to be calm in those situations speaks of a guy that’s only going to excel and get better as he plays more football,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said.

Nussmeier rallied the Tigers from a 14-point second-half deficit — as well as a 14-point deficit in the first half — to overshadow a stellar performance by Wisconsin’s Tanner Mordecai. Mordecai threw for a season-high 378 yards and three TDs for the Badgers (7-6), who played without star running back Braelon Allen.

“This hurts. We had every opportunity. This is what we wanted. We wanted an opportunity to get this thing to the fourth quarter and find a way to finish,” Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell said. “That’s probably been our Achilles’ heel all year. We just couldn’t get it done.”

Nussmeier, who turns 22 in February, had appeared in 17 games over three years at LSU, including five this season while Daniels was compiling dazzling statistics — 3,812 yards and 40 TDs passing, 1,134 yards and 10 TDs rushing — on the way to winning the Heisman.

The Tigers started slowly — trailing 14-0 after one quarter, 21-14 at halftime, and 31-28 heading into the fourth quarter.

LSU’s defense finall stood tall on Wisconsin’s final drive. The Badgers reached the LSU 19-yard line with less than two minutes remaining, and then LSU sacked Mordecai on three consecutive plays Mordecai fumbled on two of the sacks, including the last one that was recovered by LSU.

“I can’t underestimate how important this win is for our entire football team and our defense. They needed some confidence, they needed some key stops,” Kelly said. “All of this builds toward confidence and evaluating what you need to do in the offseason to be the kind of defense and offense to win a championship.”

Mordecai, playing in his final college game, finished 27-of-40 passing without an interception for the Badgers, who gained a season-high 506 yards despite playing without Allen, who opted out of the bowl game because he’s declaring for the NFL draft.

The sixth-year senior who began his career at Oklahoma threw for 7,152 yards and 72 touchdowns in two seasons at SMU before transferring to Wisconsin. His arrival — along with the addition of multiple transfer receivers and Air Raid disciple Phil Longo as offensive coordinator — created expectations that the Badgers were on the verge of abandoning their traditional staid run-oriented offense and would throw the ball more.

But Mordecai, who missed three games with a broken throwing hand, threw for just six touchdowns during the regular season.

Will Pauling caught two of Mordecai’s three TD passes and finished with eight catches for 143 yards. Bryson Green gave Wisconsin and early lead with a 20-yard TD reception and had seven receptions for 105 yards.

Those were the first two 100-yard receiving performances of the season for Wisconsin.

“Today was just a rollercoaster, up and down,” Mordecai said. “I think that’s kind how our year was, a rollercoaster. Lots of ups, lots of downs. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The guys in that locker room was what makes it so special. I think this program is in good hands.”

LSU wide receiver Malik Nabers became LSU’s all-time leading receptions leader in the Tigers’ regular-season finale against Texas A&M. He broke the schools all-time receiving yards leader on Monday, when he had three catches for 23 yards to boost his career totals to 189 receptions for 3,003 yards.

Nabers was pulled from the game after getting the record in the second quarter, and was dressed in street clothes for the second half. Kelly said it was the coach’s decision to take him out.

“He wanted to do it for his teammates, for LSU. He wanted to do it because he wanted to break the record. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think that’s awesome,” Kelly said. “Once he got the record, I told him, ‘That’s it, you’re done. You’ve done everything and more than we’ve asked you to do.’ He fought me a little bit on it. It was an easy decision.”

LSU finished with 10 wins for the second season in a row under Kelly. Les Miles, who won 22 games in 2005 and 2006, is the only coach with more in his first two seasons at LSU.

“A team that’s won 20 games over the last two years, has a good foundational base of what LSU football teams’ expectations are. This is a team that year in, year out should be competing for championships,” Kelly said. “You can’t do that when you come in with 35, 36 scholarships. You have to stabilize it and build that from within. I think we’ve done a really good job the first two years of stabilizing, put a strong base on it.”