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BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU fullback Connor Neighbors knows about emerging from the ranks of the overlooked, having worked his way up from a walk-on to a starter in a program that hauls in one elite recruiting class after another.
So now that LSU (3-1) has tumbled in the rankings from No. 8 to No. 17 following its first loss this season, Neighbors was bound to be the last Tigers player to treat last weekend's setback as irreparable blow.
"We have to learn from our mistakes. Losing to Mississippi State may have been the best thing to happen to us," Neighbors said. "We have eight or nine games left. Anything can happen. That's why it's college football."
Indeed, anything can — and does — happen in college football, which is also why a six-touchdown underdog like New Mexico State (2-2) dreams of a landmark victory in 102,000-seat Tiger Stadium on Saturday night — even though the Aggies know they'll have to overcome deficits in talent, size and speed to pull it off.
"I did impersonate a player at Kentucky, so I've been to just about every SEC stadium and I can tell you that in my opinion, by far, this is the best," New Mexico State coach Doug Martin said of playing in Death Valley. "It's unlike any other place. ... It will be very intimidating for our players to begin with, not having been in those situations ... but this is what college football is all about, going to play in these type of environments."
Here are some things to know about New Mexico State's visit to Death Valley.
QB COMPETITION: Until this week, LSU coach Les Miles seemed to think freshman quarterback Brandon Harris was still a little rough around the edges to take significant snaps from sophomore Anthony Jennings. But in last week's loss, Miles praised Harris' never-give-up attitude after he was subbed in for the final five minutes and nearly led a miracle comeback, hitting fellow freshman Malachi Dupre for TDs of 31 and 30 yards. "Brandon Harris came in and gave us a great lift," Miles said. "The important piece is to be able to function the required pieces of all of the quarterback spot. ... That's coming for him and I certainly think he has great future at that position and I would have to think that he'll see some playing time — more so based on his advancement."
CATCHING ON: So far, the Aggies best player has been receiver Teldrick Morgan. The favorite target of new starting QB Tyler Rodgers, Morgan is averaging just more than 115 yards receiving, totaling 464 yards and four TDs from new. Martin said Morgan has simply worked harder at his craft than anyone in the program. "He's really made himself into a player," Martin said.
COMMUNICATION LINE: LSU's offensive line has spent this week focusing more on communication after blow assignments allowed Mississippi State pass rushers to batter Jennings, who was sacked three times, hit as he threw and stuffed several times on designed QB runs. "We have to communicate better," guard Ethan Pocic said. "We have to work together more as a group and develop some chemistry."
TALENT GAP: Martin said he has seen a vast improvement over last season, when the Aggies went 2-10, but he still reverted to the old cliche of "taking a knife to a gunfight" while describing the challenge of playing LSU. "It's teams like this one that's going to line up and pound on you, and they've got incredible size. It's going to be hard," Martin said. "The biggest thing for us is getting the ball out in space. We're not going to be able to line up and run over LSU."
HUMBLED DEFESE: The 34 points Mississippi State ran up in Death Valley last week was a shock to the system for the Tigers' defense, which had shut out opponents for the equivalent of 10 quarters. The LSU defense is now looking to regroup against the Aggies. "As a defense, we have a lot to learn in the New Mexico State game," cornerback Tre'Davious White said. "We have to take coaching well and try to improve."