BATON ROUGE, LA. — LSU’s Tiger Stadium is one of America’s loudest sports venues. Its official capacity, 92,542, is the 10th-largest of any football stadium in the land. But numbers alone don’t capture the stadium’s legendary noise level. No, it also requires a story that has become legend in its own right.
LSU’s Oct. 8, 1988, game against Auburn is known in Baton Rouge simply as The Earthquake Game. When Tommy Hodson threw the winning touchdown pass to Eddie Fuller with 1:47 left, the crowd roared so loudly that the ground shook — so violently, in fact, that it registered as a mild earthquake on the seismograph in the school’s geoscience complex.
Incidentally, LSU won the game 7-6 to improve to 3-2. The Tigers finished 8-4.
A 3-2 start and eight-win season would be considered a disaster in Baton Rouge these days, as eighth-year coach Les Miles has led the Tigers to a national championship, another appearance in the title game and a 47-6 home record, 22-6 against Southeastern Conference opponents.
Tonight, ninth-ranked LSU, coming off a loss at Florida, hosts third-ranked South Carolina, fresh off its historic win over Georgia. This is the Gamecocks’ first trip to Baton Rouge since 2007, so none of their current players have ever played here.
USC coach Steve Spurrier noted that they have won in other loud environments — Georgia last year and Florida two years ago, to clinch the SEC’s Eastern Division. But Saturday night in Tiger Stadium is something different altogether. Under Miles, LSU is 35-1 in such games.
Since the start of 2009, USC is 22-3 at home, 11-3 against the SEC. USC’s road record in that span: 9-7, 7-7 against the SEC. The Gamecocks struggled at times in their two road games this season. Against Vanderbilt they trailed 13-10 entering the fourth quarter, but won 17-13. Against Kentucky they trailed 17-7 at halftime, but won 38-17.
The Gamecocks set a school record with their 10th straight win last week. If they are to extend the streak this week, you’d think they would need to overcome Tiger Stadium’s noise, right?
Well, not exactly. USC often lines up in the shotgun formation, in which it is impossible for QB Connor Shaw to shout a snap cadence to his linemen. Even when Shaw lines up under center, USC uses a silent count — with no cadence. Center T.J. Johnson, a third-year starter, just decides when to snap the ball.
“We’re kind of trained for the atmosphere, because we’re a no snap count team,” said offensive line coach Shawn Elliott. “We’re always a silent count.”
Sometimes, an opposing defense shows an alignment that is likely to stop USC’s play. In these situations, the Gamecocks, like all teams, will often audible into a different play — perhaps changing from run to pass, or vice versa.
Receiver Ace Sanders said the Gamecocks audibled “a lot” against Georgia, and their home crowd obliged by quieting. Usually, USC’s coaches recognize that a play needs to change, and they make the audible call. Less often, Shaw changes the play himself at the line of scrimmage after surveying the defensive alignment.
“In certain looks, we let it be his call,” said running backs coach Everette Sands. “But still, ultimately, it’s on the coaching staff.”
Actually, “audible” is something of a misnomer for USC’s modus operandi in these situations. The coaches signal the audible, as it were, from the sideline. Shaw shouts it to his offensive linemen. Receiver Ace Sanders said the audible is usually relayed to him through the slot receiver, Bruce Ellington, who stands closer to the linemen.
But because this all must happen in a matter of seconds, a game of “telephone” doesn’t seem like the most effective way to communicate an audible amidst the din of Tiger Stadium. That’s why USC’s receivers also must memorize the signals, so they can (and often do) look to the sideline to receive the audible.
“Hopefully, we just have some good plays on (initially) and we don’t have to get into a lot of communication (while changing to another play),” Elliott said. “If we have to change a play here or there, we don’t have to do anything different. We practice this way all the time.”