Senior Writer

Tigers sink teeth in Ducks, show they'll be in title picture


ARLINGTON, Texas -- They go by the names Barkevious, Tyrann and Tharold. They also have a huge Ego (Ferguson) if you count a 6-foot-3, 283-pound freshman lineman.

And that's just a sampling from the LSU defense that stuffed No. 3 Oregon in Jerry Jones' made-for-TV opener at Cowboys Stadium. Those names don't exactly bring to mind college football's Pestilence, War, Famine and Death but you take your four hosses where you can get them.

Apocalypse Now? See you later, Ducks.

For another night -- the last one eight months ago -- Death Valley moved to Arlington. A lot of things have happened to the LSU program since mowing down Texas A&M here in the Cotton Bowl. Decay isn't one of them.

It was a cleansing of sorts, this 40-27 LSU opening-night win. Afterward, there were more whispers of a possible No. 1 ranking for the Tigers than of Will Lyles or bar fights. In a season just beginning to gain definition, LSU made perhaps the biggest statement of the weekend.

"All the nerves about playing in Jerry's World they weren't there like they were last year," LSU safety Eric Reid said. "We're a little bit more comfortable."

Make that a lot more comfortable.

"I love this room," Les Miles said facing the media as a conqueror in same interview setting as he did in January.

Then he quickly got to the point, "Defense played a spectacular game."

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In Jerry Jones' palatial crib, even the interview room is opulent with fans gathered around a massive bar able to watch through giant picture windows. As if they didn't get enough of Miles and the Tigers on the field.

Oregon's high-tempo offense rarely found one. For the second consecutive game against an SEC power on the national stage, defending leading rusher LaMichael James was stuffed (18 rushes, 54 yards). The team that tied for seventh in turnover margin last year kicked off 2011 turning it over four times.

No. 4 LSU didn't bask much in the afterglow. It showed it belonged in the national conversation, then quickly switched to humility mode. There is a season to play, but the night did portend greatness.

The last time LSU won over a higher-ranked opponent was beating No. 1 Ohio State in the 2008 BCS title game.

"I don't really care if we're ranked No. 1 or not, to be honest with you," Miles said. "I appreciate the fact we're close enough to end up No. 1."

If you need to be reminded, the Tigers did it without their starting quarterback (Jordan Jefferson) and best breakaway threat (Russell Shepard). Best of all for anyone hoping for a sixth consecutive SEC national title, no one seemed to notice.

They did it by intimidating the Ducks, a feat thought to be impossible eight months ago. Impossible because Oregon had gone toe-to-toe against Auburn in the national championship game. Impossible because LSU had lost the three high NFL draft picks off its defense -- lineman Drave Nevis, defensive back Patrick Peterson and linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.

Judging by Saturday, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis barely paused for breath in the offseason in assembling this defense. Barkevious Mingo is the backup defensive end they've loved in Baton Rouge since they could a) pronounce his name and b) see his budding potential.

They call him "Keke," which is too bad because it is less lyrical and less menacing than the kid's birth name. The dour Chavis -- his own nickname is "The Chief" -- uses Mingo as a specialist against spread offenses. On Saturday night, the sophomore was a Cirque du Soleil act lunging, diving and grabbing at Ducks with his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame.

"His name is Spiderman and mine is Wolverine," said fellow defensive end Sam Montgomery. "We have nicknames for our defensive line ... We're Marvel [Comics] heroes."

That works for an adoring LSU public but what happens when Mingo/Keke/Spiderman gains some weight and reaches his full potential?

"He's probably one of the best rushers on the team with the physicalness of a defensive lineman," Montgomery said. "He plays really hard. He sticks his nose in there. He's a pretty much a multi-task guy."

Like Mingo, cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was also a sophomore making his second career start. There are not many times a 5-foot-9, 180-pound corner is the best player on the field. Saturday was one of them. On the third play of the second quarter, Mathieu both stripped the Oregon's Kenyon Barner and scooped up the fumble, rumbling three yards for a touchdown.

In his short 14-game career, Mathieu has forced six fumbles, recovered four others and had two interceptions. The little corner led all LSU tacklers with 10.

"For the most part we talked those guys out of their game," Mathieu said of the Ducks. "Those guys were getting frustrated. I think we definitely took the heart out of those guys."

Another sophomore, corner Tharold Simon was one of four Tigers making their first career start. Not bad for a debut. Simon had eight tackles, including a tackle for loss and an interception.

As far as Ego problems, there really aren't any. Ferguson, a massive 6-3, 286-pound redshirt freshman defensive tackle, played in his first career game. Chavis and headline writers everywhere can't wait until he gets into the regular rotation.

As far as any ego problems, quarterback Jarrett Lee got over those long ago. Two years ago he earned the nickname "Pick Six" for his habit of throwing them in bunches. Thrown into the role of starter after the suspension of Jefferson, Lee responded efficiently -- 10 of 22, touchdown, no picks.

"It's in the back of my mind," he said of the nickname. "I don't want that kind of season to happen again."

Until (and if) Jefferson clears up his legal issues, Lee is the man. His teammates confirmed it voting him captain last week.

Judging just by Saturday night, then, the Tigers are vintage on defense and good enough on offense.

Where have we heard that formula before? Try 2003 and 2007, those recent championship seasons.

The Tigers are as comfortable playing here as their coach. Miles was asked about spending three seasons in Dallas as a Cowboys assistant.

"Go Cowboys," Miles said. "That's g-u-a-u-x."

It was one of few LSU fumbles of the night. The Cajun bastardization of the word "go" is spelled "geaux". All that mattered was that the defense was spectacular, if not the coach's spell check.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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