No. 13 LSU, minus Jayden Daniels, turns page to face Wisconsin

Field Level Media

December 31, 2023 at 10:49 am.

LSU had the most productive offense in the country during the regular season.

Tigers quarterback Jayden Daniels won the Heisman Trophy.

However, the No. 13 Tigers won’t have Daniels, who is focusing on the NFL draft, or offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who left to take a similar position at Notre Dame, when it faces Wisconsin in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Monday in Tampa.

“Jayden did what was best for him, everybody understands his decision and we support him in everything that he does,” LSU defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo said. “The culture here is that guys started together, and we want to finish this together.”

Wingo is planning to play in the bowl game even though he missed the final five games of the regular season after undergoing abdominal surgery.

“I’m the captain of this team,” Wingo said. “I feel like I owe those guys to come back and play. I hate that I had to have surgery and miss (much of) the season, but it’s important to finish out the season with those guys.

“Sometimes around bowl games, practice gets lackadaisical, guys are out there (just) to get to the bowl game. This team’s been very intentional with our work and taking the individual periods very seriously and really trying to get better.”

Daniels’ top two receiving targets — Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr., who were a finalist and semifinalist, respectively, for the Biletnkoff Award — are expected to play and be the top targets for Garrett Nussmeier as he steps in for Daniels.

LSU (9-3) will try to produce a second consecutive 10-win season, the importance of which coach Brian Kelly emphasized as the Tigers were eliminated from the Southeastern Conference West race with a loss at Alabama on Nov. 4.

“That’s something that helped guys want to come out and play this game,” LSU linebacker Greg Penn said of Kelly’s statement. “Hopefully we’ll be able to do that for us and our fans.”

Quarterbacks coach Joe Sloan and wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Cortez Hankton will serve as co-offensive coordinators after Denbrock’s departure.

Badgers coach Luke Fickell called Nussmeier “a really, really good player, too,” but acknowledged that Daniels’ absence removes “the dynamic of a legitimate, take-it-the-distance quarterback run.”

Wisconsin (7-5) also will be missing a key offensive player as leading rusher Braelon Allen announced he was opting out before the Badgers’ bowl invitation was even offered. He ran for 984 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.

Another handful of key players have either opted out to focus on the draft or entered the transfer portal.

Yet Fickell said, “There’s a bounce in some of these guys’ step to have these opportunities (as replacements).”

Though LSU averaged 50 points while winning its last three games in the regular season, the absence of Daniels and Allen could lead to a lower-scoring game.

“You hear about Jayden Daniels and the wide receivers and all the skill people,” Fickell said, “and then all of a sudden you really start to watch and you see what kind of makes the engine go, and that’s the guys up front both offensively and defensively.”