When LSU’s 2011 season opener with Oregon was set a year earlier, the Tigers had little choice but to take to extreme measures to prepare for the Ducks’ Quack Attack, a hyperactive offense that tries to average a play every 20 seconds.
Strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt put LSU’s players through an extra grueling summer of preparation, running sprints and flipping tires and pushing sleds, all with an eye to making the Tigers — especially the defense — leaner and faster.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” cornerback Ron Brooks said. “On the first day, and we weren’t even in full pads, we were running sprints, and my legs started to give out and cramp up on me.
“I almost cried, but my teammates kept me in it and kept my mind in it. We were able to get through it together.”
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “I thought, ‘Man, this is really tough. Do I really want to play football?’ But if you just grit your teeth, bear down, you’ll be all right in the end.”
The payoff was apparent the night of Sept. 3 inside the climate-controlled splendor of Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
When LSU’s Barkevious Mingo, a sprinter in high school but now layered with the heavy muscle of a defensive end, ran down Oregon tailback LaMichael James from behind on one memorable play that still brings a smile to his face, the Tigers knew their toil had been worth it. The Tigers pulled away from the Ducks in the second half and rolled to a 40-27 victory that wasn’t really even that close.
“We had a meeting before the spring, and we told coach (Les Miles) we wanted to be eventual national champions,” senior linebacker Ryan Baker said. “He said he would do everything he could to help us out. That came with a lot of preparation.
“Out of the hot summers and long nights, everything kind of adds on. That’s the goal we want, and that’s what we’re hoping to achieve with all the preparation.”
In terms of LSU’s goal pursuit, so far, so good. The Tigers (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) are ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings and every major poll heading into the final month of the regular season.
Looming right ahead, however, is an opponent even more formidable than frenzied Oregon: No. 2 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday in Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium in a nationally televised showdown on CBS.
The Crimson Tide comes with an inherent challenge based on its smash-mouth running game and hulking offensive linemen.
But for the Tigers defense, there is an added test: how to transform from being the kind of unit quick and agile enough to stop Oregon’s fast-flying Ducks to stopping Alabama’s hulking red elephants in the same season. How difficult is it to go from trying to catch a rabbit to stopping a boulder from rolling downhill?
Mingo sounded a note of optimism.
“I think we can because of the style of defense we play,” he said. “It’s physical and it’s fast. You usually never see a fast defense that’s physical, but that’s what makes us as good as we are.”
Part of the reason for Mingo’s optimism is that like a number of LSU’s defensive players, their weight has gradually rebounded as the season has worn on. Brooks, for example, is listed at 6-foot, 177 pounds, but said last week his weight is actually back up to about 185 pounds.
“I started out about 245, 247,” said Mingo, who is listed at 6-5, 240. “I quickly dropped down, but I’m on my way back up now.”
In the grand scheme of things, Baker said, Oregon’s style of offense and Alabama’s offense have one major thing in common: It’s football.
“It’s see ball, hit ball, run the ball, catch the ball,” Baker said. “It’s not really any difference at all. With Alabama’s offense, how explosive they are, you just have to concentrate on your keys and being in the right responsibilities.”
Cornerback Morris Claiborne, who left last year’s Alabama game with a concussion, said the physical nature of playing the Crimson Tide compared to other opponents is overblown.
“Every game you play here is physical,” he said.
And the physical nature of LSU’s summer workouts for Oregon will benefit the Tigers against Alabama as well, Claiborne said.
“I think it all works out for the good,” he said. “If you can go through what we went through preparing for an up-tempo team, I think we’ll be prepared for this style of team.”