Tide players welcome intense atmosphere
By Michael Casagrande
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Marcell Dareus is typically the aggressor on the football field.
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He is a top NFL draft prospect with a knack for preying on quarterbacks. LSU, though, found his kryptonite: live (but caged) tigers.
Turns out, the 306-pound defensive end doesn’t operate with the same comfort when in the presence of a 460-pound jungle cat. Walking past the beast known as Mike the Tiger is just part of the psychological warfare waged any when an opponent comes to LSU.
By the time Alabama arrives at Tiger Stadium for today’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff with No. 12 LSU, the Crimson Tide say they will be prepared to play in one of the toughest environments in the country. Count Dareus among the vigilant.
“They are trying to intimidate us,” Dareus said. “That still isn’t going to help y’all win. That tiger, that thing scared the life out of me.”
The 92,400-seat stadium known as “Death Valley” certainly will be alive today with hope of an SEC West title on the line. When coach Nick Saban made his first return visit to Baton Rouge in 2008, a record crowd of more than 93,000 packed the historic venue known for its lively tailgating and that lethal mascot that drew attention from a few other Alabama players beside Dareus.
“I remember we were warming up and turned around and they were rolling in the tiger on us,” nose guard Josh Chapman said. “Kind of had me shocked. I had never seen a tiger up close like that since I went to the Birmingham Zoo. I had never seen a tiger up so close. I mean, you almost could touch it.”
So did he taunt Mike?
“No, you don’t play with animals like that,” Chapman said.
LSU is known for being especially unwelcoming at night, so Alabama caught a break when CBS chose it for the 3:30 p.m. time slot. The Tigers have a .775 winning percentage when playing under the lights since 1960, compared to their 21-25-3 day-game record in the past 50 years.
But with so much on the line and given the rivalry that has developed between the Tide and Tigers, nobody is expecting a docile crowd.
“LSU has been probably the best,” Alabama running back Mark Ingram said of the atmospheres he’s encountered. “I remember going there my freshman year in that double-overtime win, it was crazy. It was a night game, so it was crazy. Their fans are great, and it’s just a great environment to play in. As a competitor and an athlete you love to go play in environments like that.”
For wide receiver Julio Jones, the intensity of LSU fans fuels his performance. He caught seven passes for 128 yards when Alabama beat the Tigers 27-21 in overtime two seasons ago.
“It’s a wonderful atmosphere to play a college football game in Baton Rouge,” Jones said. “I love it. Just the atmosphere, the people, the adversity. Just going in there and being there to play and dominating the opposing team for 60 minutes, I just love a challenge.”
But what about that tiger?
“I didn’t notice a tiger,” Jones said. “I didn’t see it. I ain’t scared of a tiger.”