LSU opens SEC play at Auburn, where things haven’t gone well in recent years
No. 2-ranked LSU wasn’t tested by any of its first three opponents, winning nonconference games against North Texas, Washington and Idaho by a combined score of 145-31 without ever leaving the comfort of Tiger Stadium.
Now, the Tigers have taken their luggage out of storage, made their plane and hotel reservations and hit the road for the first time this season.
Their trip to Auburn, Ala., is their first visit to an opponent’s campus since Nov. 19 when they beat Ole Miss 52-3 in Oxford, Miss.
Now, seven games and 308 days later, they’re playing their Southeastern Conference opener at the venue that has been least hospitable to them in recent seasons.
Though Auburn (1-2, 0-1 SEC) is far from the team that won the BCS championship two years ago, it does provide the most difficult challenge to date.
“It doesn’t matter what our record is or what their record is,” said LSU offensive lineman Josh Dworaczyk, a sixth-year senior who’s making his third trip to Auburn. “When we face off, they might as well put No. 1 and No. 2 next to the teams, because it feels like a national championship game.”
The last time LSU visited Auburn, the national championship was in both teams’ sights. They were both 7-0; Auburn was ranked fifth and LSU sixth.
Auburn claimed a hard-fought 24-17 victory, clearing one of the biggest hurdles on the way to the national championship.
“We’re cognizant of the fact that not long ago they were national champions,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think it’s a really live venue. I’ve taken some really quality teams in there and not done as well as we would have liked.”
Miles’ teams have lost two out of three games in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and LSU has lost five of its last six games there. The exception was a 26-21 LSU victory in 2008.
LSU, like most teams, pipes in loud music during practice to try to simulate crowd noise as it prepares to play on the road. Miles has taken it a step further this year.
“We’ve been working on it since the start of camp, which is new to us,” senior center P.J. Lonergan said. “We’ve never had speakers during camp. We usually just bring them out for the road games. Hopefully, it will have everyone prepared for the noise.”
Dworaczyk said preparing for the noise simulates just part of the challenge presented by a place like Jordan-Hare.
“It can’t prepare you for the SEC atmosphere at a school like Auburn, the feeling you get,” he said. “You just have to wait a few snaps and settle in.”
Eight players LSU lists as starters will be starting for the first time in an SEC road game, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Freshman cornerback Jalen Mills will be starting as he plays in an SEC game for the first time, and several backups figure to get their SEC baptism as well.
“You’ve got to go out there and do it,” Lonergan said. “There’s no substitute for going out there and doing it. Watching film is probably the next best thing to prepare yourself to go out there, but really getting the experience is what it comes down to.”
Most of the players, have experience in similar venues, if not Jordan-Hare specifically.
“We’ve been in hostile environments before, so we know how to handle ourselves very well,” defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “Their team and their fans are to be respected. We’re going to have to play our hardest and stay focused on our calls, because they’re going to be screaming, and it’s going to be crazy.
“If you don’t know how to handle it, it becomes an advantage for your opponent. If you know how to handle it, you’ll be fine.”
Dworaczyk said the neophytes’ introduction to SEC play will carry over into Sunday.
“On Sunday your body feels more banged up,” he said. “There’s nothing comparable to the physicality of the SEC. But I think the young guys are looking forward to seeing what the conference they signed up for is all about.”
Senior wide receiver Russell Shepard said a place such as Auburn gives LSU a taste of what visitors to Tiger Stadium routinely get.
“It’s a place like they’ve never played in before,” Shepard said. “We sometimes take for granted how special our place is, because we don’t experience the negative stuff.
“The crowd is quiet when we’re on offense, and when we’re on defense we want them to get as loud as they want. You’ve just got to tune out the noise and play football.”
Safety Craig Loston said rhe emembers going to Jordan-Hare as a freshman two years ago.
“I didn’t expect it to get that loud,” Loston said.
He also didn’t expect to see a live eagle fly around the stadium as he and his teammates were about to take the field. The flight is a pre-game tradition at Jordan-Hare.
“That took me by surprise,” Loston said. “It was a sight to see.”
But, Loston said, it probably didn’t have the same effect as Mike the Tiger being wheeled past opponents in Tiger Stadium.
“A bird can’t do half the things a tiger could do to you,” Loston said. “I’d go with a tiger over a bird any day.”