Third-ranked Oregon and No. 4 LSU have been two of the most talked-about football teams for several months. Sometimes the fact they’re playing each other to open the season Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium has even entered the conversation.
Both teams have made headlines for players running afoul of the law, getting suspended or ruled ineligible, and being involved in NCAA investigations or sanctions, and more.
But now it’s all about the start of the college season, and the Ducks and Tigers are the marquee matchup of Week 1.
“There has never been another game where I have wanted to play more to get stuff out of the way than this one,” LSU center P.J. Lonergan said. “So much has been going on, so much talk about all kinds of different things. I want to go out and play this game and get everybody on a positive note and get this negativity behind us.”
The Tigers have spent much of preseason practice trying to simulate the Ducks’ fast-paced offense in which they try to snap the ball six to eight seconds after the previous play ends. Oregon averaged nearly 50 points per game last season.
Quarterback Derron Thomas and running back LaMichael James, the leading rusher in the country last season, are LSU’s top concerns.
“These guys run like track players, but they’re agile like basketball players,” defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “They can move very quickly between two yards.”
Defensive tackle Michael Brockers said the key to defending Oregon’s spread option scheme is for the interior linemen to get into the backfield as Auburn did in slowing down the Ducks to win the BCS Championship, 22-19, in January. Those Tigers limited Oregon to 75 yards on 32 rushes.
Another way for LSU to slow down the Ducks would be for its offense to keep the ball away from them as much as possible.
“We really want to control the tempo, and we also want to put up points,” guard Will Blackwell said. “The longer we have the ball, the less they have the ball.”
If LSU can run the ball effectively that will lessen the burden of quarterback Jarrett Lee and an inexperienced group of receivers. Lee ascended to the starter’s position just eight days ago after Jordan Jefferson was suspended after being charged with second-degree battery. Two days before that, Russell Shepard, one of just two receivers with significant playing experience, was declared ineligible for violating an NCAA regulation.
“Obviously your preparation has to change slightly because they’re a little bit different players,” Ducks coach Chip Kelly said of LSU’s quarterbacks. “But LSU is not going to change its entire offense. I don’t think they’ll have a drop-off because I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen of Jarrett.”
Lee, a fifth-year senior who hasn’t started a game since 2009, is 5-4 as a starter.
“I’ve played in big games before,” Lee said. “It’s not like I’m coming into the first team and everything is new to me. I’ve been working with these guys for a long time.”
Lee is less of a running threat than Jefferson is, but he said he feels more nimble after losing 20 pounds since the end of last season.
“I expect a lot out of Jarrett Lee,” coach Les Miles said. “He’s looking forward, and so are we, to seeing him play a full game from start to finish. I expect him to operate the offense better than he ever has.”?
Lee won’t have to face Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris, who had six interceptions and 17 pass breakups last season. Harris, who was second in the country with an average of 18.83 yards per punt return last season, was suspended for this game in June after being ticketed for driving 118 mph on the interstate.
This game also marks LSU offensive line coach Greg Studrawa’s first game as the acting offensive coordinator. Studrawa took on the play-calling duties at the start of preseason camp when it was revealed that former coordinator Steve Kragthorpe would be limited to quarterbacks coach duties after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Kragthorpe will coach alongside Studrawa in the press box.
That’s another of the many unexpected developments that have confronted these teams on their way to this game.
One thing has not changed amid all the recent turmoil - rarely has a game on Labor Day weekend featured as much significance to the BCS title hunt as this one does.
“We’ve put a lot of work and effort into putting ourselves into position to play quality football games and play for championships,” Miles said, “and there are so many things that can derail and distract a team along those lines. I think we’re all really looking forward to playing on Saturday night. I think our team is ready for football.”