LSU: Get Them While They're Learning

Yes, this Saturday's game at LSU—a night visit to Death Valley—is the September contest the Vanderbilt Commodores figure to lose. But with that said, there's definitely a scenario in which the Johnson Boys have a chance, and that's the point of focus for week two of the 2009 season.

The Dores would be hard-pressed to knock off the Tigers in any time or season, but if ever there was a time to play under the lights in Tiger Stadium—one of the most intimidating venues in all of college football—this is it. Consider just some of the reasons why LSU, though superior to Vanderbilt from a pure talent standpoint, is not likely to be at its best when kickoff time comes a' calling in Baton Rouge:

First, LSU is dinged up. Safety Chad Jones briefly left this past weekend's game at Washington with an injury. The prime performer in LSU's secondary re-entered the contest, but missed many tackles and lacked the effectiveness he's known for. LSU defensive end Lazarius "Pep" Levingston also left the Washington game with an injury, although his status for this Saturday is unknown at press time. All in all, injuries and substitutions played a part in Washington's 478-yard outing against a Tiger defense that's still finding itself.

Second, LSU is getting to know John Chavis. Phil Fulmer's friend and longtime defensive coordinator at Tennessee is now a Bayou Bengal, which should make coach Les Miles smile in years to come. In the immediate future, however that would mean this week a young defense is immersed in a crash course on Chavis's changes and choices. LSU missed plenty of tackles in Seattle against its week one opponent, and that's not something for which a defensive coordinator should have to answer. However, Washington thrived in the early stages of that contest partly because Husky coach Steve Sarkisian, the longtime offensive coordinator at USC, exploited openings in the middle of LSU's defense. Bobby Johnson and his staff will notice these vulnerabilities in their film study this week, and while Chavis will work just as hard to patch things up, it's not likely that LSU will find all the answers in week two. Larry Smith provided his body holds up will have a decent chance to quarterback the Commodores to a respectable point total in Cajun Country. If the Tigers cough up a few turnovers at the right times, a win could be stolen, slight though the odds may be.

Third, LSU will be dealing with a number of travel-based challenges. The Tigers had to travel to the Northwest corner of the contiguous 48 states and play a late ESPN game that ended after 11 p.m. local time in Seattle after 1 a.m. according to Louisiana body clocks. The Tigers didn't catch an immediate plane flight out of town; they decided to fly back later on Sunday after getting some rest. Long journeys are never good for elite athletes in the professional or collegiate realms; the effects of extended travel don't just manifest themselves on gamedays, but also on the weekends following cross-country treks such as the one the Tigers have made. Add on the fact that Seattle's cool, rainy weather marks an abrupt departure from the hot, humid weather of the Southeast, and the Tigers, who were cramping up as it was on Saturday night in the Northwest, will have a hard time adjusting to their native climate this upcoming Saturday. Vanderbilt had a home game to start 2009, so when the Dores make the short southbound hop to the capital city of Louisiana for week two, they'll be fresher and less vulnerable to cramps than their opponent. Vandy's getting LSU at the right time; perhaps not enough to win, but certainly enough to be in the conversation for 60 minutes and have a chance to steal a victory.

Okay, okay, you might be saying—we get it. The Tigers probably won't be 100 percent. Just what do the Dores propose to do about all this? Well, Labor Day weekend offered a reasonably good performance against Western Carolina, but nobody would be caught dead saying that that contest is a bellwether for Vandy's offense in '09. In many ways, the story of VU's new era of offense begins this week. Quite simply, the Dores need to complete the basic checklist for any successful offense (nothing that needs any explanation whatsoever) and see how they measure up against LSU. If the Dores find themselves in the thick of the fight in the second half, Larry Smith's legs, combined with the ability to punish the Tigers up the middle thanks to the running tandem of Warren Norman and Zac Stacy, will prove instrumental in leading the visitors to the edge of an upset (and maybe even to the altar of victory itself).

On defense, the calculus—at least at the outset (in-game adjustments will tell most of the tale)—is similarly evident. Myron Lewis and Ryan Hamilton will need to contain LSU receivers Brandon LaFell and Terrance Toliver, who torched Washington in week one. Vandy's defense is strong enough and stout enough to withstand LSU physically; surrendering big plays—again, nothing that requires any elaborate clarification—has to be the primary point of concern for Mr. Johnson and VU defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler.

All in all, on both sides of the ball, Vandy needs to play this game with 60 minutes in mind. That might seem like a cliché, but it's not. What's meant by that statement is that the Dores should try to wear down LSU rather than trying to out-think them. Teams with playmaking superiority want to go in for the quick kill and not allow the final 15 minutes of a game to mean anything; no one in the Tigers' camp should be thinking about strategies or tactics that will turn this tilt into a 60-minute affair. It's Vanderbilt who wants to extend the proceedings in Baton Rouge, using the Tigers' road-weary legs and distracted, young minds against them. The more Vandy can lean on the Tigers and break them down series by series, the more the Johnson Boys can find a finishing kick in the fourth quarter. If the score is close as the clock winds down in Death Valley, a surprising result is entirely possible, and well within one's powers of visualization.

No, it's not absurd to think Vandy can pull off a win this Saturday. The percentages, naturally, say that the Dores are still fighting uphill, but there is a path to success for the VU crew: Get the Tigers while they're learning… and recovering… as they start the season in the midst of travel issues, bumps, bruises, and coaching changes.


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