HOUSTON — Melvin Gordon has a pretty good idea what the refrain will be and how long it will last.
“It was a big game for us and we (came) up short,” the junior tailback for the University of Wisconsin football team said after the No. 14 Badgers’ 28-24 loss to No. 13 LSU on Saturday night in the AdvoCare Kickoff Classic at NRG Stadium.
“So obviously, people will say I’m sure, ‘Wisconsin can’t win the big game.’ I’m pretty sure we’ll be hearing that all year.”
UW could have shed that reputation with a victory over the Tigers but collapsed after building a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter. LSU scored on four consecutive possessions to produce the final 21 points of the game, including two touchdowns in a span of 2 minutes, 27 seconds early in the fourth quarter.
Now, the Badgers find themselves 0-1 for the first time since 1997 and will try to regroup heading into Saturday’s home opener against Western Illinois (1-0) at Camp Randall Stadium. The Leathernecks of the Football Championship Subdivision opened the season with a 45-6 victory over visiting Valparaiso.
“I definitely think we’ll bounce back,” UW junior cornerback Darius Hillary said. “It hurts right now, but we’re going to look at the film and correct all those mistakes and get everybody ready for next week. This is our first game. We can’t let this determine how our season goes.”
UW’s pride wasn’t the only thing that hurt after the loss to LSU. The Badgers’ defensive line, already a question mark, finished the game without two of its best players because of injury.
Fifth-year senior Konrad Zagzebski sustained a head injury on LSU’s second series of the game and was taken off the field on a stretcher. He was taken to a local hospital but was released in time to fly home with the team.
Fifth-year senior Warren Herring sustained a right knee injury on the final play of the third quarter. He was seen leaving the UW locker room on crutches.
LSU produced 76 of its 126 total rushing yards in the fourth quarter. Senior tailback Kenny Hilliard carried the ball 11 times for 93 yards in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead touchdown on a 28-yard run with 9:41 seconds remaining in the game.
Poor tackling cost the Badgers on the previous series, which ended with Tigers redshirt freshman John Diarse scoring on a 36-yard reception on a third-and-21 play. Diarse caught the ball at the 25, 10 yards shy of the first-down marker, but broke tackles by Joe Schobert, Devin Gaulden and Lubern Figaro en route to the end zone. A two-point conversion cut UW’s lead to 24-21.
That play was just part of the meltdown by a UW defense that was outstanding for two-plus quarters.
“We learned a lot this game,” senior linebacker Marcus Trotter said. “I’d rather this happen early in the season than later on.”
Losing Herring and/or Zagzebski for an extended period would leave the Badgers dangerously thin along its defensive front.
Junior Jake Keefer and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih stepped into expanded roles after the injuries. Sophomore Arthur Goldberg started the game at nose guard in UW’s base 3-4 defense and played a lot of snaps. True freshman nose guard Conor Sheehy even played late in the game.
“People have to step up,” Trotter said. “That’s the nature of the game, it’s a very physical sport. We have some veterans going down. We need some young guys to step up.”
Added Hillary: “We always have that next-man mentality. Whoever gets hurt, the next man has to be ready. We’re only as strong as our two-deep, and that’s the mentality that we have and we have to go in these next games.”
The Badgers catch a break in the schedule. After Western Illinois, UW gets a bye followed by back-to-back home games against Bowling Green and South Florida.
But the sting of the Badgers’ first loss of the 2014 season is going to stick around for awhile, especially for Gordon.
“Pretty much since I’ve been here, we’ve been coming up short in the big games,” he said. “It sucks.”