Editor’s Note: This is our first installment where David Helman takes a look at each opponent on LSU’s schedule for the upcoming season.
A Look Back
The Mountaineers cemented their place in college football history at the start of the 2007 season when they defeated Michigan 34-32 in one of the sport’s most famous upsets. Led by dual-threat quarterback Armanti Edwards, the Mountaineers posted a 13-2 record and cruised to a third straight national title with a 49-21 win against Delaware in the FCS championship game, making them the first team in the FCS to win three straight titles.
Edwards was ASU’s catalyst against the Wolverines, going 17 for 23 for 227 yards and three touchdowns with 62 yards rushing and another touchdown. But he also drove the Mountaineers throughout 2007, having a sophomore season comparable to Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. In 15 games Edwards racked up 1948 yards passing with 17 touchdowns and a 66.7 completion percentage, along with 1727 rushing yards and 21 more scores.
The Mountaineers started the ’07 playoffs in shaky fashion, defeating James Madison 28-27 in the final minute of the first round, and holding on for a 38-35 win against Eastern Washington. Edwards came alive in the tournament’s late rounds, however, as he torched Richmond for 313 rushing yards and four touchdowns, as well as 14 completions in 16 attempts for 182 passing yards and three touchdowns. The Mountaineers sealed the title with 556 yards of total offense against Delaware.
A Look Ahead
The name of the game for ASU in 2008 is reloading after losing key starters.
Armanti Edwards returns for his junior season as the Mountaineers’ leading passer and rusher. However, outside of the prolific quarterback the offense will look very different. The Mountaineers’ all-time leading rusher Kevin Richardson is gone after tallying 1,394 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior. His replacement will be junior Devon Moore who rushed for 480 yards and seven touchdowns in mop-up duty.
The passing game will take a hit in ’08 as well. Dexter Jackson and Hans Batichon, who combined for six catches, 114 yards, and three touchdowns against Michigan are off to greener pastures (Jackson will be returning kicks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Replacing the speedsters in ASU’s 4 and 5-wide shotgun formations will be senior TJ Courman, junior Josh Johnson, redshirt sophomore Coco Hillary, sophomore Tavaris Washington, and freshman Brian Quick. Johnson and Courman have extensive playing experience, but the telling stat is that ASU’s top four receivers on the 2008 two-deep combined for three touchdowns in 2007.
The offensive line returns its tackles, but will see a changing of the guard(s). Tackles Brad Coley and Jonathan Bieschke held down the outside of the line last season, combining for 24 starts. The inside of the line is not so secure, as sophomores Daniel Kilgore and Brett Irvin take over at right guard and center with just four combined starts. Sophomore Pat Mills grabbed the left guard spot in spring practice, but the South Carolina native has no starts to his name.
The Mountaineers return a strong defensive unit, but will have to cope with the loss of one of their all-time greats.
The defensive line, much like the offensive line, will count on the outside to help the inside. Right end Gary Tharrington has made 27 starts, along with his counterpart Tony Robertson who has made 12. As starters in 2007, the duo combined for 146 tackles and 10.5 sacks. At defensive tackle, Daniel Finnerty notched nine starts in ’07 and tallied 31 solo tackles. The one unknown on the line is junior JUCO transfer Malcolm Bennett, a three-star talent from the Georgia Military College.
The linebacking corps would have to be considered the strength of the ASU defense. Sophomore DJ Smith returns after winning the weak side spot as a true freshman. Smith was a force on the outside with 121 tackles, and he totaled at least seven tackles in all nine of his starts. At middle linebacker, junior Jacque Roman is the only player to top Smith’s tackle count with 127. Both Smith and Roman were named honorable mention All-Americans for FCS, and Roman famously stopped potentially game-winning drives by both Michigan and James Madison with forced fumbles. At strong side, Pierre Banks is the Mountaineers’ most experienced player with 30 consecutive starts. Banks notched 108 tackles in 2007 and was named first team All-American and first team All-Southern Conference in his junior season.
If the linebackers are this team’s strength, the secondary is lacking majorly in experience. At nickel back, senior Leonard Love will finally get his chance as a starter. Love appeared in all of ASU’s games last season, but only made two starts and finished with 19 tackles and an interception (against Michigan). At cornerback, Jared Reine and Cortez Gilbert will be thrust into starting roles after combining for just two starts. Gilbert’s only starts came in the national quarterfinals and the national title game, where he held his own and logged nine tackles. The junior notched 27 tackles on the season. Reine will be making his first career start under the lights of Tiger Stadium and the sophomore made seven tackles on special teams in 2007.
Easily the biggest job for the 2008 Mountaineers belongs to Mark LeGree, who must fill the shoes of departed senior Corey Lynch. Lynch will be remembered as an all-time Mountaineer great. At safety, he was a three time All-American and was named the 2007 Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. In 56 games he tallied 358 tackles, 52 pass breakups, and 24 interceptions. Lynch will also be remembered at ASU as the player who blocked and returned Michigan’s potential game-winning field goal to seal the Mountaineers’ all-timer upset.
The special teams are in great shape for ASU in 2008. Julian Rauch resumes his role as place kicker after connecting on 17 of 21 field goals and 76 of 81 PATs in ’07. Rauch was 5 of 7 on field goals of 40-49 yards last season. At punter, senior Neil Young returns after averaging 37.8 yards per punt with a long of 58.
When App. State invades Tiger Stadium
Despite what happened to the Wolverines in 2007, some will find it easy to write off the Mountaineers. Not me. LSU is returning just two starters to its back seven, which is not encouraging when considering the talent ASU has at quarterback. However, the embarrassment of riches the Tigers have on the defensive line should be more than enough to get to Edwards and hold him in check, comparable to what the line managed against Tim Tebow last fall.
Similarly, a three-time defending champion defense is hardly what I want going against my green quarterback if I’m Les Miles or Gary Crowton. ASU’s extremely talented linebackers could make life difficult for everyone involved in the Tigers’ offense, let alone Jarrett Lee or Andrew Hatch. Fortunately, both of the Mountaineers’ corners will be entering Death Valley relatively untested, which has got to make Crowton salivate. Not to mention, LSU has the tools to win this game without ever throwing a pass (if it should come to that). LSU’s offensive line has an average height of 6-4 and an average weight of 311, while ASU’s starting defensive line comes in at an average height of 6-1.8, with an average weight of 255. With a size advantage like that, there’s no reason that Williams, Scott, and Murphy can’t do anything they want.
Appalachian State defeated Michigan in front of a hostile crowd of 109,000, so it doesn’t make sense to say that Tiger Stadium will be the deciding factor in this clash of champions. That being said, a nationally televised game in Death Valley with a crowd that has been waiting and waiting for this day to come will do nothing but help the Bayou Bengals and undoubtedly rattle a few of the less experienced Mountaineers. The only other meeting between these two was a 24-0 LSU win in 2005, in which Appalachian State hung around until the game’s dying stages. The Mountaineers outrushed LSU in that contest, and that was before Armanti Edwards took over the quarterback position.
It’s not exactly Virginia Tech, but ASU should prove a worthy challenge for an LSU team looking for leaders on both sides of the ball. I expect LSU to break out its multi-headed tailback monster and win the game in the trenches. Like last time, Appalachian State won’t go away easily, but the Tigers will be sharp enough to secure a comfortable margin of victory.