It’s geaux time — Vandals ready to face LSU, their most fearsome opponent to date
Proceed with caution. It’s the message that Idaho players and coaches will receive before venturing into the Deep South — Tiger country, as those sporting purple and gold refer to it.
Patiently awaiting the Vandals’ arrival in Baton Rouge? LSU, the 2011 BCS National Championship runner-up and No. 3 ranked team in the nation, according to the AP Top 25 poll.
It’s a preposterous test for Idaho as a whole and especially the Vandal offense, which has been stifled by its Big Sky and MAC opponents in losses to Eastern Washington and Bowling Green.
Only inferior to SEC rival Alabama, the Tigers were the nation’s second-best defensive squad last season, allowing 11 points per game. This season, LSU’s two opponents have managed 17 combined points against the three-time national champions.
Idaho coach Robb Akey is conscious of the monstrous task LSU demands from its opponent’s game in and game out.
“Opponents continually tend to get stronger week to week, this one’s pretty damn good,” Akey said. “There’s really not a lot of difference between No. 3 and No. 1 or No. 8 and No. 3. Those guys are all good and when you watch the film on these guys they’re big and athletic up front, they’re strong and fast at the skill positions.”
In early August, SEC fans let out a collective sigh of relief when 2011 All-American and Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu was suspended from the team indefinitely. In the grand scheme of things, Mathieu’s presence was appreciated, yet not crucial to the success of LSU’s secondary unit. The Tigers picked off 18 passes last season, but only two of those were Mathieu’s.
True freshman Jalen Mills has replaced the man commonly referred to as the “honey badger.”
“They’re not missing much. Maybe it’s a good thing (for them) that they don’t have the
“honey badger” any more, that guy’s pretty good, that’s North Texas for you,” Akey said of Mills, the SEC Freshman of the Week.
Up front, the Tiger defensive line weighs in at a combined 1,082 pounds. Their size isn’t as impressive as their pass rush ability, which led to 39 sacks a season ago. Linemen Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Bennie Logan accounted for 20 of those sacks and return as starters this fall.
To avoid the wrath of a defensive line that features two All-SEC selections and a second team All-American, Idaho quarterback Dominique Blackman may find the most success with short yardage passing situations.
Blackman and co. relied on that same style in last week’s loss to Bowling Green and though the offense managed just one touchdown, much of the reason Blackman threw 80 percent and for 352 yards was due to Idaho’s success with shorter hitch and slant dump-offs.
Senior wide receiver Mike Scott says imperfections do exist within the heralded Tiger defense.
“They’re not perfect, nobody is perfect so we’re just going to try to find holes that they have,” Scott said.
He also believes the Vandals’ depth at the receiver position could prove to be a major advantage Saturday.
“It’s good because it keeps teams guessing. A lot of times when teams have that one guy that has most of the work, they kind of strategize against him but us you’ve got four guys so you need to strategize against all of us,” Scott said.
And you better believe the Tigers have strategized for the Vandal pass game, but more specifically, their starting quarterback.
LSU coach Les Miles took notice of Blackman’s historic performance against Bowling Green, complimenting the junior’s physique and decision-making ability.
“He’s extremely accurate — big, strong, tall throwing Jessie … Talented guy,” Miles told reporters following Wednesday’s practice. “They have a good, quality receiving corps.”
On the flip side, the Tiger offense is also under the command of a first-year quarterback. Junior Zach Mettenberger has taken the reigns of a position that became quite the controversy in Baton Rouge last season, when seniors Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson split time.
With an experience-laden group of running backs that includes All-SEC second teamer Spencer Ware, LSU has had great amounts of success establishing the run game thus far. Still, Mettenberger has shown promise during his first two starts, passing at a 70 percent completion rate with two touchdowns.
Protecting Mettenberger is another group of gargantuan Tiger linemen who stand at an average of 6-feet-6 inches and weigh an average of 318 pounds.
Idaho defensive end Maxx Forde said although they can’t replicate the size of the LSU O-line during practice, it’s something they’re able to prepare for.
“Some of the guys out here won’t be as big that you’re going against in practice … You can prepare for that by trying to work on your pad level, getting your strike. Honestly they’re always going to be bigger than us on the defensive line,” Forde said.
Communication is another area Akey has stressed throughout the week of practice leading up to the Saturday game. To imitate the ear-shattering sounds that 90,000 plus fans produce on any given Saturday at Tiger Stadium, the coaching staff applied artificial sound through speaker systems at the SprinTurf this week.
Akey still insists that the synthetic noise is no comparison to what the team will experience come 7 p.m. Saturday.
“There won’t be anything fake about that noise, it’s going to be loud,” Akey said.
Another option, joked Idaho’s coach, was to have players wear the noise-canceling Beats by Dre headphones, many of them can be seen using.
“You know they’ve all got these nice headphones, I’m thinking about having them go out there and crank those things up and we’d be rolling,” he told the media during Monday’s news conference.
Following Louisiana-Monroe’s upset of former No. 8 Arkansas last weekend, the possibility of mid-tier conferences shocking SEC powerhouses has become that much more realistic.
At least, that’s what Akey hopes.
“We call it a game for a reason,” he said. “I’d tell you what, this football team is damn good, they’re going to be in the hunt for it all. I’d love nothing more than to be able to pop the bubble.”
With a 7 p.m. CDT/5 p.m. PT kickoff, Idaho fans will be able to tune-in to TigerVision, a pay-per-view service provided by LSU, to watch the game. ESPN’s GamePlan will also air it.
Theo Lawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org