Daniel had his biblical lion’s den but tonight William Stewart of West Virginia will venture into a Tigers den that is anything but biblical.
With more than 90,000 Cajuns and their Louisiana neighbors jammed into Tiger Stadium, roaring after a day of tailgating, Stewart’s West Virginia Mountaineers will try to put an end to LSU’s streak of consecutive regular-season non-conference victories at 30. It is the longest such streak in the nation.
Both teams enter at 3-0, WVU ranked No. 21/22, LSU ranked No. 12/15.
The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
While it may seem that WVU deserves its role as 8-point underdog, the Mountaineers enter the game confidently and with a swagger.
“We’re built for games like these,” said senior linebacker J.T. Thomas.
Certainly, West Virginia has always enjoyed a challenge, often rising far above it.
“We play with a chip on our shoulder, that’s no secret,” Thomas said. “That’s why I went to a school like West Virginia. Guys come with a rough edge.”
The talk this year nationally has centered around the weakness that has been displayed by the Big East Conference while the Southeastern Conference, of which LSU is a member, is considered the nation’s strongest.
Thomas refuses to buy such talk.
“When I get to hear people talk about conferences being big and bad, I figure when that ball is snapped whoever is better is going to win,” Thomas said. “The SEC is not going to win that game for LSU. The Big East is not going to win the game for us.
“At the end of the day it’s two teams, who’s the better team on that day. That’s all that matters. That’s why I don’t like to get caught up into ‘Oh, they’re from this conference or that conference.’ I’m at West Virginia and I know we play a great level of football. That’s all that matters.”
Certainly, West Virginia has held up well when venturing into the SEC, something it has done in each of the past five years, winning four times.
WVU defeated Georgia, 38-35, in the Nokia Sugar Bowl; beating Mississippi State, 41-12, in Starkville and 38-13 in Morgantown; topping Auburn, 38-17, in Morgantown in 2008 and losing at Auburn, 41-30, last year.
Last year’s national champion, Alabama, of course, came from the SEC, but that doesn’t impress Thomas
“The SEC has won a couple of national championships here and there, but do you mean to tell me if we were in that national championship a couple of years ago against Ohio State we wouldn’t have given them a run for their money? At the end of the day, it’s football,” Thomas said.
It is, but there are differences from other places. The heat figures to be difficult, the crowd among the largest ever to see WVU play, the presence of a live tiger outside your locker room intimidating.
No one openly is worrying about any of it.
“Of course it’s different,” Thomas said. “It’s not like going out at noon and playing a smaller team, not like playing Coastal Carolina at noon. It’s LSU at night and all eyes will be on this.”
“It’s a little bit different,” added slot receiver Tavon Austin. “They have a tiger out there. So that’s going to be different, being out there with an animal. I think it will be fun.”
The national television aspect even adds to it for the players. While some pretend like they don’t know about that, Thomas says they are aware.
“People who don’t get to see their families much, their families get to see them on TV,” he said. “Guys get amped up for the game, but you have to control that in a way. You don’t want to be so amped that you’re out of breath with the first step.”
It is really a great opportunity.
“It’s a big, big showcase for college football and a chance for the Mountaineers to go down there and see how we measure up,” Stewart said. “Teams have not been real successful down in Tiger country.”
This is especially true under the lights, LSU coach Les Miles being 25-1 in Saturday night games in Tigers Stadium, losing only to No. 1 Florida.
The crowd will be one of the loudest WVU has ever had to handle, but they feel they are ready for it.
“I think our guys are going to use the crowd to their advantage, to be amped up for the game. I think you’ll see us play faster than we’ve ever played and that will be good for us,” Thomas said.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.