Tom Arth's UTC faces its toughest challenge of the young season on Saturday when the Mocs travel to Baton Rouge, LA, to take on No. 12 LSU Tigers. This marks the eighth time in ten years that the Mocs have played a top-15 FBS school, losing each of the prior seven by an average 40.1 points. UTC and LSU have only played once in a 26-19 win for the Tigers on November 6, 1954.
UTC is no stranger to playing SEC teams. Last November, the Mocs led then top-rated Alabama 3-0 at the end of first quarter before losing 31-3, which was a win of sorts. Fans may recall the halftime interaction between ESPN reporter Olivia Harland and coach Nick Saban, as the Tide led 14-3. "I'm embarrassed the way we played this half, " exclaimed a clearly frustrated Saban. The final score marked the lowest margin of defeat against a top-15 FBS school over the last ten years.
Coming off their 27-13 loss to Jacksonville State, the Mocs have had an extra week to gameplan for LSU, but that won't make UTC's path to victory any easier. LSU is 54-1 in regular season non-conference games since 2002. The Tigers' only loss came from a 16-14 defeat to Wisconsin at historic Lambeau Field. Last week, LSU's defense was a tough as ever, limiting BYU to 97 yards of total offense. In fact, the Cougars offense never crossed the 50-yard line on any possession in the game. Even more impressive about these stats is that LSU did this without 13 players who were either injured or suspended for the game, including pre-season All-American end Arden Key, who has been ruled out for the game on Saturday.
LSU's offense is led by new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, hired by Ed Orgeron to bring more diversity and scoring. However, the pre-snap movement aside, LSU's offense looked like its old self, as the Tigers attempted 57 rushes for 296 yards or 5.2 yards per rush vs. 18 pass attempts and 183 passing yards. When discussing his offense, Orgeron said, “We took what they gave us.” Sr. quarterback Danny Etling finished with an economic 14 for 17 for 171 yards, 0 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.
The real star in this LSU attack is Heisman hopeful, running back Derrius Guice, who led the SEC in rushing last season with 1,387 yards. Guice was slowed in pre-season training by an undisclosed injury, but still managed to run for 122 yards and 2 touchdowns on 27 caries. When asked about the load put on Guice in the first game, coach Orgeron responded, "I think any time you get over 25 (carries), it’s too much because we have three or four backs that can run the football. I don’t think that you’re going to see Derrius carrying the ball over 25 times or 30 times in a game every game. We don’t want to wear him out. We want to rotate our backs."
The Mocs emphasized tackling and pre-snap reads in their defensive gameplan this week. "They have three to four guys that are very, very good, so we're going have to tackle," said UTC defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman. "It's an extraordinary challenge, and we'll see what we can do."
UTC will continue to rely on quarterback Nick Tiano, who replaces suspended Alejandro Bennifield. Tiano is no stranger to LSU's Tiger Stadium, having traveled there last season with Mississippi State in their 23-20 loss. He completed 23 of 43 passes for 218 yards with one touchdown and one interception against the Gamecocks. To keep themselves in the game, the Mocs will need to reduce their turnovers after turning it over three times to JSU, including a fumble and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
LSU made its own share of mistakes, committing 10 penalties and failing to score touchdowns on four of their seven red zone opportunities. In his press conference this week, coach Orgeron said that his Tigers worked on improving their red zone offense this week and also mentioned bringing officials to practice to reduce offensive penalties.
Despite the odds, the Mocs aren't intimidated about playing LSU. UTC linebacker Tae Davis said, "It’s a great opportunity to play against the best in college football. I’m a competitor and so is the team, so it brings out the best in us." Davis went on to say, "We’re looking to go out there and show that we belong. You definitely get an extra juice playing in an environment like that.”
UTC and LSU kick off at 7:30pm EST in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA, in a game that will be aired by the SEC Network.