By BRETT MARTEL
BATON ROUGE, La. — Steve Spurrier lightheartedly, if not dismissively, shrugged off questions this week about the mystique of LSU’s Tiger Stadium, even though he knows from experience how hard it can be to win there.
“That is THE Death Valley, isn’t it? Or is there another one? There’s two of them. That’s right. There’s two Death Valleys,” the colorful coach of No. 3 South Carolina said in a two-pronged jab at both Saturday night’s opponent — LSU — and the Gamecocks’ in-state rival, Clemson. “We know it’ll be loud and crazy and all that kind of stuff, but we’ve won in front of 90,000 before.
“The tiger doesn’t play defense or offense for them, not yet anyway,” Spurrier added, referring to LSU’s Bengal tiger mascot, Mike. “They keep him caged up, I think.”
Spurrier has his best team in his eight seasons at South Carolina, which is now ranked higher than any time since climbing to No. 2 in 1984.
The coach has had plenty of victories at LSU, both as Florida’s quarterback and coach, but also had one of his worst upset losses there, a 28-21 setback in 1997, when he was coach of the No. 1 and defending national champion Gators and the Tigers were ranked 14th.
This time it won’t technically be an upset if South Carolina (6-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) fails to make it out of Louisiana’s version of Death Valley with its record still unblemished. No. 9 LSU (5-1, 1-1) has been listed as a slight favorite by odds makers, even after losing for the first time this season last week at Florida.
Although LSU’s offense stagnated in a 14-6 loss, the Tigers have one of the top defenses in the country and can still win the SEC West by winning their remaining league games. Such a run would put them right back in the national championship picture.
The Tigers have also won a school record 21 straight at home. They haven’t lost in Tiger stadium since Oct. 10, 2009, against then-No. 1 Florida, led by Tim Tebow.
“We can’t lose any more or our national championship hopes are gone. We’ve got to buckle down and just get to it,” said LSU linebacker Kevin Minter, whose 20 tackles and forced fumble at Florida earned him SEC co-defensive player of the week honors. “South Carolina — they’re such an incredible team. If we win this game it would give us a little more momentum going into the rest of the season.”
LSU coaches and players sound convinced that first-year starter Zach Mettenberger can be an exceptional quarterback. He just hasn’t shown it yet — not consistently anyway.
He didn’t have to be that good in LSU’s first five games because the Tigers have been averaging about 200 yards on the ground. But in his only two SEC games, he has struggled. At Auburn, he was 15-of-27 for 169 yards, no touchdowns and turned the ball over twice on fumbles. At Florida, Mettenberger completed fewer than half his passes for 158 yards, was intercepted once on an overthrow and was sacked four times.
“We have flashes here and there. We’ve just got to get more consistent,” Mettenberger said. “I can only take care of myself on the field. The other 10 guys have got to be responsible to do their job. But we’re so close to being a good offense. … We’re just one guy away, a step away or a second away. If we just continue to work it out and iron out the little things we’re going to be fine.”
If they haven’t ironed it out this week, though, they could be in for a long night against a South Carolina defense with a lethal pass rush led by Jadeveon Clowney and fellow end Devin Taylor, who’ve combined for 15 tackles for losses this season, including 10 sacks.
The Gamecocks are looking pretty good on offense, too, after rolling past then No. 5 Georgia 35-7 last weekend. Marcus Lattimore rushed for 110 yards and a score against the Bulldogs, while dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw passed for two TDs and ran for another.
That game was at home, though. LSU will pose a tougher test. The Tigers rank third in the nation in total defense, second in pass defense and eighth in scoring defense.
Shaw isn’t even sure how much his foot speed will help.
“Those guys are just as fast as me,” Shaw said. “I don’t think I’m going to get out of the pocket like I usually do. I’m just going to have my eyes downfield and get the passing game going.”
Spurrier, meanwhile, conceded crowd noise could pose problems for his offense.
“We won’t be able to audible,” Spurrier said. “Last week, we changed a whole bunch of plays (at the line scrimmage), so hopefully, we get the right one called at the beginning.”
LSU coach Les Miles said the Tigers were stung by their lone loss and poor performance on offense, but have the talent and desire to grow from the experience.
“I’m not ready to say that we’re not going to be a really good football team,” Miles said. “It’s just that we need to do the things that we can do and do them extremely well. We need to execute them at a high level and make our opponents deal with it. It’s about us and about what we want to do, not necessarily about our opponent.”