Saban, Tigers get a look at Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech, ranked 16th in the latest Associated Press poll, is the first test for No. 14 LSU in the 2002 season. Depending on how you look at it, the Tigers may have gotten a sneak peak at some of the answers on that test when they watch the Hokies decimate Arkansas State, 63-7, on Sunday.

The Hokies tied school and Big East records with 35 points in the first quarter and set a new school mark with 56 unanswered points in the first half. The first score of the game came on 69-yard punt return from DeAngelo Hall who scored again when he made an interception 49 yards later in the first quarter.

The Hokies' defense scored another touchdown in the second quarter when defensive tackle Jason Lallis recovered a fumble and returned it 59 yards for a score.

"Virginia Tech obviously…has an awfully good football team," said LSU head coach Nick Saban. "They're aggressive and physical in their style of play, a very energetic and opportunistic type team, just in the way they scored a lot of their points in the first half."

Most of Virginia Tech's starters were pulled from the game in the second quarter, and a large number of walk-ons and seldom-used reserves played for most of the second half.

Saban said he was not surprised to see Virginia Tech's special teams figure into the scoring and attributed the Hokies' defensive scores to their aggressive play. On offense, he said Virginia Tech ran more option plays with backup quarterback Bryan Randall than he expected. Plus, he believes Virginia Tech has more up its sleeve than they it to show against Arkansas State. 

The Tigers will have to win the turnover battle and have special teams produce positive plays in order to beat Virginia Tech, said Saban. Realizing he will have new and younger players at certain positions, the coach knows how they react to the surroundings of Lane Stadium on Sunday will also dictate the outcome of the game.

"We've got to do it on the road," he said. "We've got a blend of players on our team right now. Some have been on the road and some of the younger players are going to have to play in a game like this a show they're not going to let it affect them."

Saban said he will not preach cautiousness to his players before they face the Hokies since the home team will probably continue to display the assertive style they used in blowing out Arkansas State.

"The key thing for us is to play aggressively," said Saban. "You've got to kind of match steel with steel, so to speak. You can't say, ‘Oh well, we're playing on the road and playing a good team so let's be nervous about it, be conservative.' I don't think that's the approach we want to use. If we're physical and aggressive, if good things happen – great. If bad things happen, we'll try to fix it."

Sunday's game against Virginia Tech marks the first ranked team LSU has opened against on the road since meeting No. 3 Texas A&M at College Station to start the 1995 campaign. Saban said he likes his team's recent experience in big road games and hopes it carries over to Blacksburg.

"Have we played tougher games in places and had success?" he asked. "Yeah, the SEC Championship game last year. Tennessee was No. 2, a good team. So it's not like we've never been there before. But this is a new team and a new year, so we're going to play the game and see how we respond to it."

LSU sophomore quarterback Matt Mauck will get his first college start Sunday and his first start in a football game since he was a senior at Jasper (Ind.) High in 1996. He acknowledges that the Tigers won't be facing a "warm-up" team in its opener. 

"It's a tough test to face a team like that, said Mauck. "It will tell us what kind of team we have."

Senior linebacker Bradie James, a pre-season candidate for the Butkus, Lombardi and Nagurski Awards, agreed with Mauck's assessment.

"Traditionally, we have been a team that finds our stride in mid-season," said James. "This game is going to tell us right away how good we are."

While Virginia Tech brings highly regarded special teams units to the game, LSU boasts one of the better returners in the college game in senior Domanick Davis. While also sharing time at running back with LaBrandon Toefied, Davis says he knows he can help the Tigers get started on the right foot with a strong performance on special teams.

"I think this will be a big difference in the game," said Davis. "If we start with a good kickoff return and a good punt return, we will put our offense in position to score."

In Toefield and Davis, the Tigers boast a productive backfield that will probably get a number of opportunities to establish the tempo of the game while Mauck settles into a comfort zone at quarterback.

Virginia Tech has two good backs as well in Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones. Suggs, playing in his first game since tearing his ACL in the Hokies' 2001 season opener, led all rushers against Arkansas State with 87 yards on seven carries. He provided the second score of the game on a 32-yard touchdown run. Jones, the Big East Freshman of the Year in 2001, had 31 yards on four carries with a 19-yard touchdown that capped the first quarter scoring.

Suggs and Jones were pulled late in the second quarter when Virginia Tech had the game well in hand. Coach Frank Beamer also order his team not to return punts. 

"I don't think either one of those guys really had a lot of opportunities to show what they could do," Saban said, adding that one NFL scout has told him Suggs is projected as the top pick in next year's draft.

Saban was very pleased with the limited number of injuries he reported heading into Sunday's game. Only one of the four players who will not see action would have been a key contributor - defensive lineman Kenderick Allen, who continues to recover from a torn patellar tendon.

Freshmen defensive backs Jeff Cook (sternum), Keron Gordon (knee) and Vernon Russell (ankle) did not practice on Monday and weren't expected to be available for the weekend. Allen did practice in light gear while the rest of the Tigers were in full gear.

Freshman offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski was also on the sidelines Monday. He continues to heal from a staph infection in his right leg but is expected to return to practice today.

The most positive injury-related news involved backup quarterback Marcus Randall, who has made a full recovery from the right ACL tear he suffered in the spring game. Saban says Randall has a green light to participate in the Virginia Tech game.

"If something happens, we're not apprehensive about putting him in the game," said Saban. "He feels that he can play, and we feel like he can play."


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