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Arizona St. preps for statement game with LSU

9/8/2005

Like everyone else across the country, Arizona State's football players watched with horror as the surreal aftermath of Hurricane Katrina played out on television.

Like everyone else, they winced at the damage and loss of life and overflowed with sympathy.

"We're all Americans," Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller said. "My heart goes out to them."

Like everyone else, the Sun Devils enjoy feel-good sports stories about teams overcoming adversity, attaining glory and restoring a community in the process.

Only it's a little too much to expect them to graciously accept their unappealing role in such a story arc this weekend against LSU, even if they have to don black hats and become the villains for a national television audience on ESPN.

So, respectfully, they aren't buying into LSU's "Win one for the state of Louisiana" angle.

"I can see how there would be plenty of people rooting for them," Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter said. "But what I told our players [is] none of this is our fault."

The Sun Devils were scheduled to play at LSU, but the Tigers' Baton Rouge campus is serving as a rescue area for evacuated hurricane victims. That logistical challenge obviously takes precedence, so the game has been moved to Arizona State.

What that means for Arizona State is substantial in a competitive sense. It means no trip across two time zones, no brutal Louisiana humidity and no 93,000 manic fans fueled by an eight-hour tailgate screaming at the top of their lungs.

It feels insensitive to point out the swing in home-field advantages because dire circumstances made the move necessary, but it is what it is.

While it's officially a neutral game, with all money after expenses going to relief efforts, it now sets up well for the 19th-ranked Sun Devils, who ambitiously imagine themselves as legitimate threats to USC's dominance in the Pac-10, even if few others do.

Beat the No. 5 Tigers and that sparsely crowded bandwagon might get bigger.

"This is a big statement game for us," linebacker Dale Robinson said. "It could answer a lot of questions."

While beating Temple into a pulp isn't the sort of accomplishment that provides eureka moments for a football team, the 63-16 victory last week showcased an array of offensive weapons, particularly a four-touchdown passing performance from Keller and 134 yards rushing on 12 carries from freshman Keegan Herring.

Keller's impressive work in the Sun Bowl victory over Purdue previously allayed fears about his ability to replace Andrew Walter -- the Pac-10 leader in career touchdown passes -- but 300 yards rushing suggested that last year's mediocre ground game might be significantly improved.

Of course, LSU is a far different bird than the beleaguered Owls.

"They're the fastest team I've ever seen on film," Keller said.

Then there's the old SEC vs. Pac-10 thing. Folks down South spend a lot of time -- not to mention e-mail and blogging -- insisting their football is best, even though the Pac-10 is 6-2 vs. the SEC since 2000.

"I know how teams from the East and Southeast view the Pac-10," Keller said. "They think we're weak and soft. But Iowa thought that last year and we smacked them around."

Arizona State crushed Iowa 44-7 but, inexplicably, spent much of the season ranked below the Hawkeyes, despite losing only to USC and California, both elite teams, before imploding in the finale against rival Arizona.

LSU also probably learned not to underestimate the Pac-10 last year. Oregon State rolled into Tiger Stadium for the 2004 season opener and lost only 22-21 because of three missed extra points.

Still, the Sun Devils will work the respect angle in their locker room. That theme probably won't catch the fancy of many viewers or television producers, though.

LSU athletic director Skip Bertman and other school officials have described the game as a rallying point for the state of Louisiana, and Tiger players have embraced the notion that winning would give their fans some consolation during a difficult time.

"We've got to go out there and put them on our backs and give these people a sense of pride and something to be proud of, and that's how we have to approach it, and that's how we will approach it," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth told the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Keller noted that the Sun Devils sort of feel like another Arizona team once stuck with the bad-guy role -- the Arizona Diamondbacks in the post-9/11 2001 World Series against the New York Yankees.

"Like coach Koetter told us: This is first and foremost a national tragedy; we know that takes precedence over the game," Keller said. "I've tried to imagine what it must be like for them with everything going on besides football. It's got to be a distraction. I hope football gives them an outlet for it."

Bad guys? The Sun Devils aren't buying it. It's just a football game, albeit a big one, and they have their own happy ending they'd like to author.

"I feel bad about what is going on down there," Robinson said, "but football is football once we're on the field."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.