Baton Rouge, LA – The top-ranked LSU Tigers recently survived conference foe Western Kentucky invades Baton Rouge.
The Hilltoppers are not to be taken lightly, as they have captured five consecutive victories, the longest winning streak for the program since 2004. This string of strong play has caught many off guard, as Western Kentucky lost its first four games this season and looked downright awful in a couple of those affairs. Now at 5-4 overall and 4-1 in Sun Belt Conference play, the Hilltoppers are in contention for the league crown and just one win away from bowl eligibility.
"Our guys are confident, and they are not giving up," said WKU head coach Willie Taggart after last weekend's 10-9 win over Florida International. "They believe they can win and we are finding ways to do it."
Obviously, there is a huge leap in competition level between FIU and LSU, however, as the Tigers are battle tested and on track for a trip to the BCS National Championship Game. Les Miles' club emerged from Tuscaloosa with a 9-6 overtime win over second-ranked Alabama last weekend, and while the Tide did miss several field goals to help the visitors, that win is as big as they get.
"Two very physical football teams played tonight," said Miles after the contest. "It definitely didn't go by script. The most interesting thing is that you just have to keep fighting and finding a way to win."
Alone atop the SEC Western Division standings, LSU seems to have just one tough game remaining on the regular season schedule, a home finale against Arkansas, but it will be important not to look past the Hilltoppers this weekend.
This game marks the first-ever meeting between WKU and LSU on the gridiron.
WKU's game against FIU last weekend came down to a last-second, 34-yard field goal attempt by Casey Tinius, and the kicker was able to kick his Hilltoppers to victory. Kadeem Jones scored the only touchdown of the day for the winners on a two-yard run in the first quarter, and WKU finished with 324 total yards, including just 143 through the air from Kawaun Jakes, who completed 8-of-24 passes. Fortunately, the Hilltopper defense was tremendous, yielding a mere 180 total yards, including 52 on 27 rushing attempts.
"We challenged our guys to hold them under 100 rushing yards," said Taggart. "Those guys did a great job swarming to the football, and they were a huge reason why we won this game."
The Hilltoppers are scoring 21.6 ppg while gaining 331.6 total ypg, as the offense can best be described as inconsistent and rather mediocre. Of the 25 offensive touchdowns scored by the team to date, 17 have been of the rushing variety, but the fact that WKU is gaining only 3.8 yards per run suggests that there is plenty of room for improvement. Still, Bobby Rainey is undoubtedly a candidate for Sun Belt player of the year because of his 1,169 rushing yards and nine TDs through nine games. Rainey has also posted 30 catches for 298 yards and three scores as a receiver despite the fact that Jakes has been inconsistent as a passer (seven TDs, 11 INTs).
Opponents are scoring 24.1 ppg against WKU, which is permitting 373.2 total ypg. Clearly, however, the defense has improved tremendously since some shaky efforts during the early four-game losing streak.
LSU certainly didn't look like a top-ranked and undefeated team when its offense was on the field last week, as the Tigers managed just 239 total yards against Alabama, including 91 passing yards with a pair of interceptions. Fortunately for Miles' club, the defense played stellar football, limiting the Crimson Tide to 295 total yards and posting a couple of huge interceptions. The fact that 'Bama managed only 3.1 yards per rushing attempt says it all.
"Our defense was tremendous tonight," said Miles. "It was the difference in the game."
The Tigers, who are generating 35.9 ppg and 357.3 total ypg, continue to employ a two-quarterback system. Jarrett Lee is the more accomplished passer on the roster, and he has completed 62.3 percent of his passes this season for 1,274 yards and 13 TDs with only three INTs. As for Jordan Jefferson, he is the more athletic of the two and saw a bit more action than Lee against Alabama. Rueben Randle is the man to watch on the outside, as he has turned 35 catches into 657 yards and seven scores. Spencer Ware and Michael Ford are a solid RB duo that has combined for 1,054 yards and 12 TDs.
Sam Montgomery is enjoying a great season for the LSU defense, as he has posted nine TFL to date, including six sacks. Tyrann Mathieu, one of the top defensive playmakers in the nation, has two interceptions, three recovered fumbles and four forced fumbles. The Tigers are permitting a minuscule 10.9 ppg and 256.2 total ypg. They are surrendering only 2.6 yards per rushing attempt and have barely allowed opposing quarterbacks to connect on 50 percent of their pass attempts.