BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — When a fan asked Les Miles what he thought about Washington placing a live tiger next to its practice field this week, the LSU coach said light-heartedly that it sounded to him like the Huskies “are concerned about our mascot.”
Miles then added, “I can promise you this: The mascot is not the issue.”
Of course, the Huskies are more concerned about No. 3 LSU’s relentless running game, which piled up 316 yards last week in a 41-14 victory over North Texas. But it probably didn’t hurt Washington to try to simulate the game-day experience in Tiger Stadium, given that LSU has not lost in the deafening venue known as Death Valley in nearly three seasons.
The Tigers have won 18 straight at home, where Mike, a Bengal tiger, usually surveys the field from cage placed near the tunnel from the visitor’s locker room.
For Washington coach Steve Sarkesian, though, the point of the caged tiger at practice was to remind his players that everything happening outside the lines are mere distractions which the Huskies must learn to tune out.
“We are not playing their crowd, or playing the tiger or playing the stadium,” Sarkesian said. “We are playing the 11 guys that line up across from us on that snap and that’s what we need to focus on.”
The trip to Louisiana marks the first road game of the season for the Huskies (1-0), who opened with a 21-12 win over San Diego State. LSU (1-0), which last week opened at home just days after Hurricane Isaac disrupted its practice schedule but left campus with only minor damage, rolled to an easy 41-14 win over North Texas.
Miles said he was pleased with new starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s first start, despite some shaky moments including a sack that sidelined him for a series and an interception near the North Texas goal line.
“He could have easily had two touchdowns and another 40 yards passing,” Miles said of Mettenberger, who was 19 of 26 for 192 yards, one TD and one interception in his debut as starter. “He was not perfect, but there is opportunity to improve.”
Mettenberger’s play was still more than good enough for a team that continues to boast one of the deepest, most productive running games in the country.
Last week, Kenny Hilliard (141 yards, 2 TDs) and Alfred Blue (123 yards) led the way. Last season’s top rushers, Michael Ford and Spencer Ware, could emerge at any time, as could talented freshman Jeremy Hill.
“That’s what we mainly do here. We mainly pound the ball,” said Hilliard, a physical runner at 6-feet, 231 pounds.
The Huskies yielded 199 yards rushing last week to San Diego State, though some of that was on quarterback scrambles. If they struggle to stop the run again this week, the Tigers could very well live up to the expectations of oddsmakers, who listed them as three-touchdown favorites.
The good news for Sarkesian is that his players hardly seemed content with last week’s victory, recognizing some of the shortcomings that may not have been apparent in the score line.
“This is a hungry group. They want to get things fixed,” Sarkesian said. “They want to put their best foot forward Saturday night.”
If the Huskies can keep it close, their quarterback, Keith Price, will give them a chance to win.
He threw for more than 3,000 yards last season and completed a career-high 25 passes last week.
This week will be a tougher test against LSU’s stout defensive line featuring ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. LSU’s defense did not record a sack last week, but did pressure North Texas QB Derek Thompson into 12 incompletions and an interception out of 21 attempts.
“We had a good pass rush against our earlier opponent, but sometimes they were getting rid of it very quickly and under duress,” Miles said.
Price is a good scrambler, though, and has a deep receiving corps that includes 6-6 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who had a career-high 9 catches for 82 yards against SDSU. And LSU has some youth in the secondary, with freshman Jalen Mills having moved into a starting role at cornerback following the dismissal last month of 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu.
“They haven’t seen an offense like us and they haven’t seen receives like ours,” Washington receiver Kasen Williams said of LSU. “That’s going to be a big thing to watch.”
LSU safety Eric Reid agreed that Price’s dynamic abilities, combined with his skilled receiving corps, could test the Tigers’ secondary.
“He can roll out of the pocket, he can stretch the play out and he also makes good decisions,” Reid said of Price. “We’re depending on our D-line to help him make bad decisions. Hopefully we can make some plays.”