About the Tigers: Or should we say, the Enigmas? A LSU team expected to set the SEC West pace and represent the Division in Atlanta for a third time this decade has most observers taking second-looks, and not entirely favorable ones at that. Oh, there are no issues about talent and competitiveness as two tense contests show. But the second-half collapse against Tennessee now puts that nailbiter-win at Arizona State in a different light and raises the inevitable question, did Nick Saban take the Tigers' knack for finishing the kill with him? To be sure LSU has been coping with more outside issues than any squad should and a hurricane-shredded September schedule means only now are the Tigers settling into something resembling routine. That hurts a team more than fans understand, especially one still getting adjusted to a new head coach. Les Miles jumped at the chance to jump from Oklahoma State and take over a relatively-intact team, and while not so obviously intense as his predecessor the new boss earned this shot at a big-dog state program with a solid if not spectacular track record. Now he's learning the meaning of high-profile pressure. Maybe too much oughtn't be read into the first two games, and nobody is counting LSU out of the West race at all. But suddenly there's no margin for further error with resurgent Alabama and still-dangerous Auburn now a game or two up in the standings. And if Miles thinks he's heard Tiger fans howl this week, imagine if he were to let one of these next two games get away.
Offense: A 31.0-point scoring average after two games looks good (and ranks 22nd nationally) but there is still uncertainty about what sort of offense LSU really has. Passing efficiency, third-down conversions, turnover margin…none are encouraging at the moment, though a dead-last SEC status in first downs is obviously skewed by having played just two games. What adds urgency to the questioning is that there is clearly the talent here to make lots of things happen, with explosive skill personnel and a veteran line. Naturally in uncertain times the harshest light turns to the quarterback. Last year JaMarcus Russell was the fan-favorite, as are most freshmen QBs. Now he's learning that being #1 means wearing a bulls-eye for foes and fans alike to aim at (with rookie Ryan Perriloux assuming the role of presumed savior-in-waiting). Russell is a bigger, stronger, faster version of D.J. Shockley, and maybe the toughest ‘sack' in the SEC. In two games he's completed 30 of 57 throws with one score, one pick, and 390 yards, and his NFL-style ‘rating' is not so hot at 112. What he does do well is spread the ball around with ten receivers sharing those 30 catches. Craig Davis (7 balls for 117 yards and a 14-game receiving streak) is the top target so far with Early Doucet (4 for 73, 1 TD) and Dwayne Bowe used in multiple-sets. The one watched most though is senior Skyler Green, an explosive catch-and-go guy who can turn a three-yard catch into the full distance with one move. He's been held somewhat in check at 8.8 yards per grab in September but all know the big breakers are coming. Running back Joseph Addai is another passing option with four catches already. But the senior does most of his work toting for 97 yards a game and 6.0 per carry, with three TDs. Shyrone Carey and Justin Vincent alternate as subs and each has proven themselves in SEC action. Put another way, the injury-absence of Alley Broussard doesn't seem obvious so far. It's an experience front doing the dirty work and talk about a veteran, 6-7, 322-pound senior Andrew Whitworth has started 41 games at LT and is up for both the Lombardi and Outland trophies. The right side has adjusted over time with guys taking a step to their right. Now center Rudy Niswanger is a Rimington candidate and 310-pound Nate Livings, a former tackle, set at RG with junior Brian Johnson coming into his own at RT. There is a new face though as redshirt Brett Helms has taken LG from soph Will Arnold. Again, this offense has the obvious ability to be very good, and the catchers and runners can cause headaches for any defense. Maybe as the schedule settles into a rhythm, so will the Tigers and their still-maturing triggerman.
Defense: When LSU forced, caught, and scored on a pressured Tennessee pass nobody should have been surprised. Tiger defenses have made a habit of turning mistakes into points on their own with 11 such touchdowns since 2003. And it all starts up front with the typical big and aggressive four-man line, though this group adds an athletic twist that allows them to out-quick big blockers. Smaller O-lines just get overpowered. How many teams have two all-star nominees at tackles? LSU does with seniors Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams. Mix in DE Melvin Oliver and the Tigers have a trio with 30 career sacks between them, joined by transfer Chase Pittman at the other end. The linebackers are not quite as established, though nobody would dare call this a ‘weakness.' Senior Cameron Vaughn spent his first two years at weakside and now has earned the right to line up at middle, and already has 17 tackles in two games there. His old job alternates between junior Jason Spadoni and soph Ali Highsmith with the former expected to start this week. Senior Kenneth Hollis didn't have to move and is a reliable strong-side ‘backer. The threesome has solid size, averaging over 225 pounds with the speed one expects. The secondary is excellent, again. Junior FS LaRon Landry has picked a pass his last four games and has seven for his career. But he does much more than cover, he hits and soon will surpass 200 career tackles. SS Jessie Daniels is a all-SEC candidate, while lone senior Ronnie Prude is paired with new starter Chevis Jackson to cover the corners. It's unwise to read too much in the unit's 46% rate (or 56% lack-of-success rate) on third downs since they've played two top-notch offenses. But starting this month the Tiger D will have to up the rate of sacks (just four in two games), and improve on passing defense efficiency rated just 104th in the land. And in whole-team terms LSU has proven very penalty-prone.
Specialists: The name is Green, and senior Skyler sees a lot of if when he fields punts with a SEC-best 18.0 yard average. He hasn't broken a kickoff yet at 18.7 yards but will soon, and going the other way LSU leads the league in kickoff coverage. Junior Chris Jackson and David Colt have split field-goal duties, each making one, while Jackson has hit all his PATs and is third in SEC punting at 42.2 yards. No surprise then LSU is #1 nationally in net punting. It doesn't hurt that Tiger teams also special-ize in blocking kicks, as with two stuffs at ASU.
The Series: This is the second-longest active series for Mississippi State, dating back to November 1896 when LSU took a 52-0 victory in Baton Rouge. That rout forecast how the rivalry would generally play over the ensuing century as the Tigers hold a 62-33-3 lead. Save for the WWII break the battle of the respective State schools has been played annually since 1926. That was the year Maroons/Bulldogs actually did take a brief lead at 10-9-2, but the Tigers won 11 of the next dozen games and have been in control ever since. The longest streak for either was ten LSU wins from 1964-73, while State's best stretch was five wins in 1980-84. Certainly LSU has owned the Dogs of late, with a five-year streak ongoing and taking 11 of the last 12 games. The Tigers are 9-6-1 against MSU in Starkville, 43-18-1 in Baton Rouge, and 10-9-1 at neutral sites. Sylvester Croom has lost his only matchup with LSU, while this is Les Miles' first meeting with MSU.
LSU Notes: LSU's Tiger Stadium is the sixth-largest campus facility in the country, with a record crowd of 92,251 set in 2003 for the Georgia game.
*Until Monday night, LSU had won 18 of the last 20 home games.
*Tiger teams are 7-4-1 in all game played on October 1, but have lost their last three (most recently, in 1994 to South Carolina). This is the first time State and LSU have met on the first day of October.
*Wide receivers Bennie brazell and Xavier Carter are both LSU track stars and have won all-American status at NCAA Championships. Carter was the SEC's freshman runner of the year for 2005.
*The Tigers are wearing three stickers to their helmets this season in recognition of the damage from Hurricane Katrina: a fleur-de-lis for their home state and city of New Orleans, a Louisiana state flag, and outlines of the states of Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama affected directly by the storm.
Connections: MSU head coach Sylvester Croom and LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini were on the Green Bay Packers staff in 2001-02. Croom worked with running backs while Pelini coached linebackers. MSU linebackers coach Amos Jones worked at Cincinnati with LSU quarterback coach Jimbo Fisher in 1999, and line coach Stacy Searls from 2000-02. And MSU running backs coach Freddie Kitchens and strength coach Jim Nowell both worked at LSU in 2000.
*Three Tigers crossed the Mississippi border to play in Louisiana: OL Will Arnold (Centreville), TE Mit Cole (Picayune), and OL Donald Hains (Diamondhead). And TE Claude Wroten played at Miss. Delta CC.
*Five Bulldogs hail from Louisiana home towns: PK Keith Andrews (Bastrop), TE Jeremy Jones (Harvey), injured RB Derek Ambrose (New Orleans), DT Soloman Ona (Scotland), and walk-on DB Justin Williams (Tallulah).
Did You Know? The MSU Bulldogs are in the midst of a three-week stretch of playing teams currently ranked in the pollster's top-tens. Georgia came to campus rated #7 by Associated Press and is still there this week. LSU's #4 rating in both polls was set before their loss to #10 Tennessee. And next week's opponent, Florida, is #5 in both polls. The Gators have their own showdown at #15 Alabama this week. If they are still in the top-ten by next Saturday, this will be the first season Mississippi State will have played three-straight clubs with top-ten rankings. Back in 1986 the Bulldogs did have consecutive top-ten matchups, against #7-Auburn and #8-Alabama, followed by a game against #11-LSU. The last time MSU played three ranked opponents consecutively was at the end of the 1999 regular season with a lineup of #11 Alabama, #22 Arkansas, and #23 Mississippi. State last held a ranking of its own at the end of September 2001 when the Bulldogs were rated #21.
Bulldog Record Watch: Halfback Jerious Norwood struggled to gain ground against Georgia and is still stuck at nine career 100-yard games. The senior just missed #10 two weeks ago when he netted 99 yards against Tulane. With 43 yards in his most recent game Norwood now has 2,390 for his four seasons, which ranks fifth on the MSU career list. He now needs 62 yards to catch James Johnson (1997-98) at 2,452 for fourth place. The top-three rushers in MSU annals are: Walter Packer 2,820 in 1973-76; Michael Davis 2,721 in 1991-94; and Michael Haddix 2,452 in 1979-82.
*Tight end Eric Butler continues to re-write the records for Bulldog tight ends and isn't even halfway through his second college season. His touchdown catch against Georgia gives the sophomore seven total, in just 14 career games. Butler already holds the position's season record with four TD grabs in 2004, when he played ten games as a freshman. So far this year Butler has caught passes for touchdowns against Murray State, Tulane, and Georgia. *Keith Andrews continued his perfect record on PATs by making his lone attempt against Georgia, raising his career mark to 25-of-25. The MSU record for consecutive made-PATs is 37, set by Kinney Jordan in 1975-76. Andrews was also good on a field goal in the last game, and is 8-of-13 in two varsity seasons.
*Omarr Conner's two touchdown tosses against Tulane gives the second-year starter a dozen scoring throws in just 12 games as a college quarterback. In this year's opener Conner tied the program record for game TD passes with four, against Murray State, matching the standard Derrick Taite (vs. both Tulane 1994 and Memphis 1995) and Tony Shell (Georgia 1988). Conner now has 1,681 passing yards and a 53.6% completion rate.
*Senior Willie Evans was not able to add to his sack total in the Georgia game, so he still stands 7th on the MSU career list with 14.5. He needs 1.5 more sacks to match Robert Young (1987-90) for sixth.
*Evans and Norwood have played in 39 career games, tops on the current Bulldog roster. But senior CB Kevin Dockery, with 37 games, leads in career starts with 31. Norwood is the leader in consecutive starts with 23 going into this weekend.
Rookie Report: Two more true freshmen joined the list of rookie Bulldogs who have been activated for 2005, bringing the total to 11 out of 21 on the roster. In the Georgia game, lineman Calvin Wilson and linebacker Jimmy Miller saw their first varsity action; Wilson rotating at right tackle, and Miller on kicking coverage teams.
One true frosh is a starter, P Blake McAdams, and WR Aubrey Bell is in the regular rotation of wideouts if not technically starting yet. Seven others are in backup or special teams roles for now: KR/CB Derek Pegues, DE Charles Burns, LB Jamar Chaney, OG Anthony Dunning, CB Keith Fitzhugh, OT Michael Gates, and RB Brandon Hart.
The newcomers who have not played yet are: WR Tay Bowser, OG Johnny Carpenter, WR Adron Chambers, QB Ty Evans, WR Corey Gardhigh, OT Craig Jenkins, DB Jarvis Kyles, QB Tray Rutland, OL Chris Spencer, and DE Quinton Wesley. Of those, Carpenter and Wesley are dressing for SEC games and Chambers just this week began practicing at defensive back.