COLUMN: A battle in the trenches

On Thursday night, expect plenty of running from both LSU and Mississippi State.

Some might call this week's road trip to Starkville, Miss., a trap game for the No. 2-ranked LSU football team, not because the Tigers are looking past No. 25-ranked Mississippi State but more so because of the timing – a nationally televised Thursday night game in a north Mississippi town anxious to see their program make its first big statement of 2011.

In fact, Les Miles has never been caught napping against the Bulldogs – though the last trip to Davis Wade Stadium, a 2009 contest that the Tigers took 30-26, was a little close for comfort.

After six full seasons with the program, Miles has the Tigers a perfect 6-0 against the Bulldogs.

"I think the reason is because we give great respect to our opponents," Miles said. "We prepare very sincerely. When you look at (Mississippi State) on film, the coach doesn't have to do any convincing. Everyone see that they are a very talented and capable team.

"We're going to have to play well to win."

Through two games, the Tigers have played well. At other times, they've played great.

It's been a little more hit-or-miss for Mississippi State, but not on offense.

The Bulldogs, led by 6-foot-4, 245-pounder Chris Relf, have been on point, scoring 30 points or more in a school-record five straight games.

LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis might have slain Chip Kelly's offensive dragon at Oregon, but now a different version of the spread attack is on tap.

"I think there is more scheme to the Mississippi State offense than there is to the Oregon offense," Miles said. "They are going to run the quarterback much more."

Running the football. That's what this one is going to be all about, just like a good SEC matchup should be.

In two games, the MSU offensive attack has piled up a conference-best 642 yards on the ground. In the same stretch of road, the LSU defense has given opponents very little wiggle room.

Against Oregon, the defensive front shut down the nation's leading rusher from last fall – LaMichael James – and held the Ducks to 95 yards on 27 attempts. Against Northwestern State, the Tigers held an opponent to negative rushing yards (-4) for the first time since 1982.

Something will have to give, and one big advantage for the Tigers is that MSU will have a fresh-faced left tackle for sophomore defensive end Sam Montgomery to go to work against. On Wednesday, head coach Dan Mullen confirmed that the Bulldogs would be without James Carmon, who suffered a leg injury in the second quarter against Auburn and did not return to action. His replacement is 6-foot-7, 295-pounder redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell.

Still, that's one side of the run game argument.

When you put the LSU offense and the MSU defense under the microscope, the advantage scale begins to tip in favor of the Tigers.

A week before Memphis scored just three points on Arkansas State, Larry Porter's Tigers managed to run for 164 yards and a touchdown in Starkville. When the Bulldogs went to Auburn last weekend, they allowed 235 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

With 150 yards and both Auburn touchdowns, running back Michael Dyer was too much for MSU to handle up front.

Coming off a short week, that same defense will face off against another five-star prospect from the 2010 class: LSU running back Spencer Ware. Through two games, Ware has picked up where he left off in bowl season last January, picking up 119 yards and three touchdowns on 32 touches.

But the emergence of Michael Ford, a pair of fresh legs turned reliable second back, is what really has LSU fans confident about the ground game.

Ford, who started over Ware against Northwestern State, leads the team with 168 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 27 carries. That's an average of 6.2 yards a touch, with Ware recoding an average of 3.7.

It's a formidable 1-2 punch, which is just what LSU will need as they attempt to navigate through a hostile road environment with a quarterback who's been to hell and back.

Let it be known, in LSU's 2011 SEC opener Jarrett Lee doesn't need to throw three touchdowns or go for over 200 yards for the Tigers to win, and it's highly doubtful that the staff expects either of those lines from the fifth-year senior. Instead, Miles will ask Lee to manage the game and minimize mistakes.

Winning the turnover margin has always been a post-game topic of discussion for Miles. And the same goes for Mullen, whose MSU side was plus-11 in turnovers in their seven wins last fall. In their four losses, the Bulldogs were minus-4 in the turnover department.

This weekend, expect nothing different. Miles and Mullen want to run the football and play good defense.

So when you settle into your seat in Davis Wade Stadium, or settle into your couch at home, be ready for night of ground-and-pound football – and expect the team that wins the turnover battle to win the ball game.

Lately, one of those teams has done a better job than the other.


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