West Virginia-LSU Preview
West Virginia isn't known for a prolific air attack, but its passing game is a big reason why the team is off to a strong start.
The lack of one is what has LSU fans concerned despite an unbeaten record.
This Saturday night matchup is the biggest potential stumbling block to a possible perfect season for the 22nd-ranked Mountaineers, who will try to hand the No. 15 Tigers their first non-conference loss at Baton Rouge in a decade.
"LSU is a great tradition and a great venue. It is a big showcase for college football and it is a chance for the Mountaineers to go down and see how we measure up," coach Bill Stewart said. "Teams have not been too successful down there in Tiger Country, and maybe we will be blessed a little bit better."
No team outside the SEC has won there since UAB on Sept. 23, 2000, with LSU since winning all 28 home games against non-conference foes. The Tigers also are riding the longest overall non-conference win streak in the nation, taking 30 in a row since a 2002 season-opening loss at Virginia Tech.
However, the Tigers (3-0) have looked a bit vulnerable this year - their opponent was within one score well into the second half of all three games - partly because the passing game hasn't gotten on track.
Big things were expected of quarterback Jordan Jefferson in his second season as the starter, but he's the 10th-rated passer in the SEC and has failed to throw for 100 yards in back-to-back games.
"As a receiving corps, we have things we have to work on. It's not all Jordan," wideout Russell Shepard said.
An emerging group of receivers is a key reason West Virginia (3-0) could win at Tiger Stadium and jump into the national title picture. LSU is the only current Top 25 team on the Mountaineers' schedule and their only other remaining opponent which hasn't lost is Rutgers.
"I'm really pumped up to see what I can do and see what the team can do," said Tavon Austin, the Big East's leading receiver with 21 catches and 281 yards. "It's going to be something down there (in Baton Rouge)."
Austin and fellow first-year starter Stedman Bailey, who had two touchdown receptions in a 31-17 win over Maryland last Saturday, have teamed with senior Jock Sanders to give sophomore Geno Smith plenty of capable targets.
Smith is the Big East's top-rated quarterback and leads the conference with 800 yards passing. No West Virginia player has led the Big East in that category since Marc Bulger in 1998, mainly because the offense has been built around a ground game led by star rushers like Noel Devine and Steve Slaton as well as mobile quarterbacks Pat White and Rasheed Marshall.
"I think their quarterback is a very, very talented guy," LSU coach Les Miles said of Smith. "I think that he gives them every opportunity at success in the offense that they are running."
Smith is also helped by opposing defenses focusing heavily on Devine. The nation's active rushing leader with 3,735 yards, Devine has run for more than 100 yards in all three games and has added 13 receptions for 89 yards.
LSU has a good rushing attack led by Stevan Ridley, who has run for 318 yards, but he is facing a West Virginia defense that is holding opponents to 62.7 rushing yards per game - eighth-best nationally.
That may mean Jefferson needs to step up, but the Mountaineers pass defense could get a boost if Stewart reinstates senior cornerback Brandon Hogan. The all-Big East first-team selection was allowed to practice Tuesday for the first time since being suspended indefinitely for a drunken driving arrest earlier this month.
While West Virginia has won five of six against ranked teams, the Tigers have dropped their last three home games versus Top 25 foes. These programs are meeting for the first time.