|Washington at LSU
Saturday, Sept. 8 | 6 pm CT/4 pm PT | Tiger Stadium
TV: ESPN | Online: Watch ESPN | Radio: KJR / Affiliates
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
BATON ROUGE, La. - The Huskies left their hotel here, the one next to the giant billboard with a stern-looking coach and the words "FEAR THE HAT!" splashed across it.
They walked around Tiger Stadium Friday afternoon. They went past the more natural habitat built a few years ago for the Mike the tiger mascot, to replace the cage between the stadium and the Pete Maravich Assembly Center next door.
They saw the towering decks that hold 92,000 people, making "Death Valley," as they call it here, Louisiana's fifth-largest place on Saturdays.
Cool, yes. Renowned, indeed. Intimidating? Potentially, for some.
Not for Keith Price.
"We'll be on our A game, trust me," Washington's quarterback said of Saturday's 4 p.m. kickoff between the Huskies (1-0) and No. 3 LSU (1-0) on ESPN television, the Washington IMG College radio network -- and here on GoHuskies.com's live chat with the web's only real-time Huskies play by play, pictures and analysis from the stadium.
"We'll be ready to rock," Price says. "Trust me."
His favorite target sure will be.
"You have to take advantage of this opportunity," said sophomore wide receiver Kasen Williams, who considered LSU while an all-star star out of Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash. "The reason why we came to the University of Washington is to play in games like this."
Indeed, this stage is big, but not unprecedented for the Huskies.
That's the point coach Steve Sarkisian has been making this week.
"(This is a) great environment for college football ... a tremendous setting," Sarkisian said. "I can't tell you the amount respect we have for their program and coach (Les) Miles.
But Sarkisian wants all to know that this is what his UW program has become all about in the fourth year since he arrived. Playing for Rose Bowls. Playing and winning at the Los Angeles Coliseum against USC. Taking on seemingly all of Oregon in raucous Eugene, all of Nebraska's sea of red in Lincoln and Baylor plus seemingly half the state of Texas inside a roaring Alamodome.
And way before that, putting on that Whammy in Miami.
"This isn't new to us," Sarkisian said. "There's a proud history and tradition here at the University of Washington of going and playing in games like this. And we'll embrace this one just like we have all the other ones for decades.
"It should be a fun ball game on Saturday."
It's already been a fun week.
Tuesday, Sarkisian imported a live, caged tiger from a refuge in Oregon to watch practice from the sidelines and get the Huskies used to seeing one before they meet LSU mascot Mike VI just outside their locker room Saturday night.
Thursday night, the team arrived at its hotel here and were greeted by Shaquille O'Neal. The retired NBA superstar and LSU's former national college player of the year was invited by Cheryl Taplin, Sarkisian's personal assistant with UW football. Taplin and Shaq went to Louisiana State together.
Shaq said he was coming to Saturday night's game. But, no, he didn't commit to suiting up against his old school.
Too bad. Washington could use the 7-foot-1, 325-pound giant to combat LSU's power running game inside.
LSU knows UW's defense allowed 199 yards on the ground by San Diego State last week, though 77 of those were on quarterback scrambles on lost edge containment. The Tigers know the Huskies start two converted safeties as their only linebackers, redshirt freshman Travis Feeney and sophomore middle man John Timu. Plus, the strength of Washington's defense appears so far to be rush ends Josh Shirley and Andrew Hudson outside and its experienced secondary.
So an inside running game from LSU's deep, rampaging runners seems like the way the Tigers will primarily go. Last week they blew out North Texas here behind 316 yards rushing. Kenny Hilliard had 141 of those yards with two touchdowns and Alfred Blue ran for 123 more. Plus, 2011 top rushers Michael Ford and Spencer Ware haven't surged yet for LSU this year.
Even with LSU missing injured left tackle Chris Faulk, a top NFL prospect, Sarkisian expects the Tigers to go right at the Huskies with Hilliard, Blue and the others on those power runs. Those runs will be coming behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the strong-armed transfer from Georgia who is making his second start for LSU.
"The power running game, they kind of lean on you and wear on your over time and create big runs," Sarkisian said.
The Huskies have shown aggressiveness defensively. Now they must show better discipline and surer tackling than it had in the opener to give Price and company a chance Saturday.
The great equalizer, turnovers, sure would help. Washington forced three and lost only one last week in the 21-12 win over San Diego State. Talia Crichton's huge hit in the open field created the fumble that Will Shamburger returned 44 yards for the clinching score in the second half.
"You win the turnover battle (and) you find a way to win ball games. That's the history of football," Sarkisian said simply.
Offensively, Price railed on himself for being "terrible" last week - while completing 25 of 35 passes. That was a completion rate four percentage points higher than his UW season-record of 66.9 last year. He said he dropped his eyes too soon to focus on the pass rush rather than hanging in the pocket longer to spot receivers breaking free, and for a few other-thrown passes to Williams and others.
"Those are the plays that separate good from great," Price said. "And I didn't make those plays."
Washington plans for Price to be great Saturday. Sarkisian has praised his QB this week for how focused he has been on the game plan, which figures to be more expansive than it was last week. The coach chastised himself for calling a somewhat conservative game in the opener, so look for the Huskies to be more wide open at LSU.
"I think the guy that calls the plays on offense could have a better game, honestly," Sarkisian said of himself this week.
Of course, the only way they can be wide open is if the offensive line plays one of its best games in years.
Erik Kohler moves out to right tackle and James Atoe makes his first career start at right guard in the wake of starter Ben Riva's broken forearm. This line must give Price more time to make plays than it did last week. And it must open enough holes for Bishop Sankey and the running game to keep LSU's top NFL prospects on the defensive front, including ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, from swarming Price at will.
Emotions will as high as the heat and humidity for another Saturday night in Death Valley. It always is, with 92,000-plus and a full day to tailgate. LSU is 222-60-4 in night home games since the first one in 1931 (and just 25-26-3 during the day in that same span).
The Huskies must weather the early surge and roars and effectively, efficiently rotate in reserves to stay fresh and close into the second half. Sarkisian has successfully recruited for four years to replenish the program's depth, and he now believes he has guys redshirting and on the scout teams that may have been starting when he first got to UW in 2009.
That improved depth will be tested here.
Sarkisian joked this week about the last time these teams met, in the 2009 opener at Husky Stadium. It was his first game leading UW.
"Hopefully we look a little better in pregame warm ups (Saturday)," he said. "I was a little kind of looking at their side and looking at our side and it didn't feel like this was a great matchup in pregame warm ups."
LSU won 31-23 that night, a game that wasn't decided until the fourth quarter. Of course, as Price said, that was relatively eons ago for Washington.
"I think we have a lot better team than what we were three years ago," said Price, who was redshirting his first year at UW the last time these teams played. "They are not overlooking us.
"They know we are going to bring it to them. And they are going to bring it to us."