Arizona to be tested in trip to LSU

They didn't want to watch. In some cases, they won't even confess that they did. After all, Arizona is a rebounding program, a young, impressionable one, so it's easy to understand why the Wildcats are reluctant to admit seeing the shocking horror movies that are terrifying the West Coast:

"The Ring Three: SECed Again" and "I Know What You Did Last Labor Day Weekend."

Or maybe "Cal Bear-ly Alive"?

By now, everyone knows the plot. Jaunty, optimistic, pass-happy Pac-10 football teams travel to the Southeast for backwoods adventures only to be mesmerized by the frenzy of the SEC. They are then captured, tortured and unprintable things are done to them -- see California's 35-18 humiliation at Tennessee and Washington State's 40-14 massacre at Auburn.

Cue the dueling banjos from "Deliverance."

It's not the sort of thing Arizona coach Mike Stoops wants his players sneaking off to watch, so it's understandable that the Wildcats are coy about providing reviews.

"I saw some highlights," safety Michael Johnson said. "Tennessee looked good."

"I watched a little bit," added quarterback Willie Tuitama.

Yet now, after nipping BYU 16-13, Arizona must pack up and head 1,200 miles east to the Bayou, where it will face No. 8 LSU, a team that has won 51 games over the past five seasons and blistered the Wildcats 59-13 in 2003.

They are going to Tiger Stadium, a.k.a. "Death Valley."

Cue the "Psycho" shower music.

"What can they do to us?" Stoops said. "It's a football game."

Hasn't Stoops seen what LSU did against Pac-10 teams the past two seasons?

The Tigers trounced Oregon State and Arizona State by a combined, er, five points. First, they beat the Beavers 21-20 by putting a voodoo hex on Alexis Serna, forcing the nation's best kicker to miss three extra points. Then, LSU's dominating defense throttled the Sun Devils, holding them to only 560 yards in a 35-31 victory.

"Coach Stoops talked about how [LSU] compared to Pac-10 schools the last [two] years," Johnson said. "Arizona State should have beaten them last year and before that Oregon State should have beaten them. So maybe a Pac-10 school can beat them this year."

Who knows? The Pac-10 had managed to go 7-3 versus the SEC since the turn of the century, but that was before a 1-2 weekend which became a media sensation (USC barely slipped by revenge-minded Arkansas, 50-14).

Still, Arizona remains a program on the mend. The Wildcats have won only eight Pac-10 games over the last five years and their offensive woes continued against BYU, particularly an anemic running game.

The Sun Devils feast a year ago notwithstanding, LSU, which hasn't allowed a touchdown in 10 quarters, isn't the ideal opponent for a team still using training wheels on offense. Despite a strong debut last year as a true freshman, Tuitama hasn't faced anything like the Tigers' defense or the Tiger Stadium atmosphere.

"They're going to put a lot of pressure on us and we've got to be sure we can handle it," Stoops said. "No one scores a bunch of points on them."

Arizona's defense was solid against BYU, holding the Cougars to 313 yards and just 24 yards rushing. But LSU's offense will be bigger and far more athletic, starting with seasoned, 6-foot-6, 260-pound junior quarterback JaMarcus Russell.

"Our coaches came from the Big 12 and Miami. I think our defensive approach is a little different than other Pac-10 schools."
-- Arizona safety Michael Johnson

Arizona's best hope might be LSU looking ahead to a marquee SEC Western Division showdown at Auburn on Sept. 16.

Don't count on that, though, particularly with LSU coach Les Miles eyeballing Stoops across the field. These two have a past, and it doesn't involve trips to the movies.

Before taking over the Tigers in 2005, Miles spent four seasons as Oklahoma State's head coach. Before taking over at Arizona in 2004, Stoops was Oklahoma's co-defensive coordinator. Miles upset Stoops and Oklahoma in 2001 and 2002, while the Sooners ran up the score, 52-9, in 2003.

Needless to say, their relationship wasn't always cuddly during the "Bedlam Series."

Johnson, in fact, uses Stoops' background as an explanation for why he doesn't expect the Wildcats to perform like Cal or Washington State, both of whom conformed to the "soft" Pac-10 stereotype last weekend.

"Our coaches came from the Big 12 and Miami," Johnson said. "I think our defensive approach is a little different than other Pac-10 schools."

That's Arizona's strategy. The Wildcats won't play into the Pac-10 versus SEC angle. They don't plan to be a sequel for another slasher-film bloodbath.

"I'm basically about Arizona football," Johnson said when asked about Pac-10 pride. "And we can match up with anybody in the nation."

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