BIG Time: Shaq Greets Huskies Upon Arrival At LSU
Sept. 6, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
BATON ROUGE, La. - First, a live tiger at practice. Now Shaq, live in their hotel lobby.
How big is the Huskies' game Saturday night at LSU? Shaquille O'Neal big.
"The Diesel" himself, wearing both a giant, white T-shirt inscribed with a "Diesel Mafia" logo and a smile, stretched his mammoth body into a cushy chair just inside the hotel's front door Thursday night. Shaq then welcomed arriving Huskies players and staffers to his old college town. Starting linebacker Travis Feeney and others gathered around him, shook his hand and snapped pictures of the retired NBA superstar, rap singer, actor, and just plain huge curiosity.
"Shaq is downstairs!" Huskies called to each other in the second-floor hallway after the first wave of players had made it to their rooms.
Their cool surprise came two days after Sarkisian got national attention for bringing a live tiger from an Oregon preserve to practice back in Seattle, so his players could get a taste of what's to come at Tiger Stadium.
"I'll tell you, he never ceases to amaze me or surprise me," fifth-year senior safety Justin Glenn said that day of his coach.
So began the Huskies' first night in Southeastern Conference country since coming here 29 years ago.
Yet Justin Wilcox knows Baton Rouge well. UW's first-year defensive coordinator coached for two years in the SEC before coming to Washington. Two seasons ago his Tennessee defense nearly upset heavily favored LSU inside Tiger Stadium. He's been back here since on recruiting trips that ended when he joined Washington in January.
The former coordinator at UT and Boise State drew up the defense that held then-No. 12 LSU to 16 points and forced four turnovers in 2010. LSU beat Tennessee 16-14 that October afternoon only because a Volunteers substitution penalty allowed LSU to re-run the game's final play for a winning touchdown.
Wilcox sees this 2012 LSU offense as physical, with the dangerous running-back duo of Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue. Hilliard ran for 141 yards and Blue for 123 last week against North Texas, as LSU rolled to 508 total yards.
"They are both really, really good," Wilcox said. "Their offensive line comes off the ball, is very, very physical."
"It's going to be a heck of a challenge for us."
Wilcox has a colleague on the UW defensive staff also more familiar with LSU than most in Seattle. Huskies first-year linebackers coach Peter Sirmon had the same job working on Wilcox's defenses at Tennessee before moving with him to Washington.
So only Wilcox, Sirmon, Taplin, and a handful of those around the Huskies team such as iconic radio play-by-play man Bob Rondeau have heard in person Tiger Stadium public-address announcer Dan Borne's famed pregame introduction that gets the steep-towered place shaking: "It's Saturday night in Death Valley! And here come your Fighting Tigers of LSU!"
Rondeau called the game that only other time Washington has been to LSU, Sept. 24, 1983. Don James' ninth-ranked Huskies ran into a Bayou buzz saw, losing 40-14 that rollicking night in Death Valley.
"They had a rock concert before the game. And then they had what was then the largest crowd in the history of that stadium (82,390)," Rondeau said Thursday aboard the Huskies' team charter as it flew to Baton Rouge.
"It was rockin'. It was very much a Saturday night in Death Valley."
LSU's tradition with night games began way back in 1931. Since then, 81 percent of all LSU games at Tiger Stadium have been at night. The Tigers are 222-60-4 in home games under the lights but just 25-26-3 during the day in that same span. LSU coach Les Miles improved to 31-1 in night home games last week.
Between those gaudy records, live tiger Mike VI in his cage on the sidelines, and 90,000-plus fans well-oiled from a full day at famed tailgate parties, no wonder pretty much every publication from Sports Illustrated to The Associated Press to Cat Fancy has proclaimed Tiger Stadium the toughest place for a college football opponent.
Wilcox calls it "one of the best environments out there."
"It will be loud. It will be fun to play in," he said Tuesday, before adding with a smile, "There are going to be all kinds of things."
UW's defensive coordinator then turned toward Sheena, the tiger Sarkisian had imported, pacing in her cage a dozen or so yards to his left off UW's East Field.
"There'll be a live tiger out there," he said with a smile. "There will be a lot of distractions -- if you let it be.
"What we've got to focus on is ... being able to block all that stuff out and know that it's coming. And I think we will handle that."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: The Huskies practiced for more than an hour Thursday morning before leaving campus. Sarkisian said after it that CB Greg Ducre suffered a minor foot sprain Wednesday but is expected to play. ... The coach said starting RT Ben Riva, who broke his left forearm in last week's opener, will likely miss four to six weeks. Tests showed a break but no structural damage. James Atoe will likely start at RG Saturday and Erik Kohler will move out to RT for Riva, after playing guard last week. ... The first thing the Huskies saw upon landing in the dark Louisiana night was a flash of lightning off the end of the tarmac. The current forecast for Saturday's kickoff at 6 p.m. local time: a 30-percent chance of thunderstorms with temperatures in the upper 80s.