"We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad. You must be, or you wouldn't have come here. A dog's not mad. A dog growls when it's angry... I growl when I'm pleased...Therefore I'm mad."
It is a well known fact that the citizens of Tiger Nation take great pride in the mystique of Tiger Stadium, and with good reason. In the eight years since Les Miles became head coach, he has led LSU to a 53-7 record in games played in that pantheon of concrete and steel. Coach Miles eloquently summed up the aura about as well as anyone ever has in a moment of victorious clarity after toppling #3 South Carolina in a classic Saturday Night clash last year:
"This is Death Valley. This is truly a place where opponents' dreams come to die."
Those words will continue to echo through LSU's history, as they did last week when the Auburn Tigers left Baton Rouge with their first loss of the 2013 season.
But just as LSU's Fighting Tigers are strongest on their home turf, the Georgia Bulldogs feel just as invincible "between the hedges" at Sanford Stadium in Athens. In his stellar 12 year tenure as head coach at UGA, Mark Richt has a 63-13 record in that legendary venue. Since Aaron Murray became Georgia's starting quarterback as a redshirt freshman in 2010, the Bulldogs are 19-2 between the hedges.
Interestingly, Les Miles won the only game he has coached at Sanford back in 2009. Before that, LSU hadn't won in Athens since 1987. The Tigers had lost three straight games between the hedges, including a 45-16 embarrassment of Nick Saban's defending national championship team in 2004.
As LSU's Charles Scott was rumbling into the end zone with less than a minute to play in 2009, true freshman quarterback teammates Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray watched from the Georgia sideline, perhaps wondering which one of them would be leading the Bulldogs the following year.
As fate would have it, Zach Mettenberger, who grew up and played high school football less than 10 miles from Sanford Stadium, never got the chance to lead his hometown team. He was dismissed from the team by Richt the following spring following an bar room incident involving the coed daughter of an influential Georgia booster. So Aaron Murray began what would become a four year tenure as Georgia's starting quarterback.
But Murray had started contacting other schools about possibly transferring before Mettenberger's dismissal, which indicates how close the competition was between the two. Murray made the most of the opportunity, and is already the all time leader for touchdowns and touchdown passes in the storied history of the Georgia football program.
Mettenberger transferred to Butler Community College in Kansas for the 2010 season, and led them to the the JUCO National Championship Game, throwing 32 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions. He then signed with LSU for the 2011 season, and watched as the Tigers rolled to a perfect 13-0 record and another National Championship Game.
He took his lumps last year as a first year starter in the SEC while leading LSU to a 10-3 record, but showed his limitless potential as he dissected Alabama's #1 defense in the country late in the year. He was 24/35 for a still career best 298 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions against the Tide. He followed that up with two more 250+ yard performances against SEC foes Ole Miss and Mississippi State, a feat no LSU quarterback had done since Tommy Hodson in 1989.
Mettenberger worked and studied relentlessly all offseason to prepare for his senior year, perhaps with a return to Athens and a showdown with Richt and Murray on his mind, and his dedication has clearly paid off. Mettenberger is the #6 rated quarterback in the country through 4 games, just two spots behind #4 Aaron Murray. He has displayed an outstanding connection with junior wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., and displayed confidence and poise in leading the Tigers.
As impressive as Mettenberger was while playing virtually mistake free football the first three games, he was most impressive when faced with his first real adversity last weekend against Auburn. After throwing for less than 80 yards in a first half rainstorm, Mettenberger threw his first interception of the year on his first attempt of the second half, resulting in Auburn driving for a touchdown to cut LSU's lead to 14.
But Mettenberger responded the way great quarterbacks do, and came right back out throwing. On the next drive he threw a 53 yard touchdown to Jarvis Landry that was called back due to a penalty, then threw a 45 yard strike to TE Travis Dickson on the very next play before Jeremy Hill scored his third touchdown of the night to bring the lead back to 21. He went on to throw for nearly 120 yards in the third quarter, and hit Jarvis Landry for a 32 yard touchdown on the first play of the 4th quarter to give LSU a 35-14 lead.
That is the type of resolve that Mettenberger will need in what will likely be a shootout against Murray and the Bulldogs. In addition to great quarterbacks, both teams boast future NFL stars at running back as well. Both Jeremy Hill and Todd Gurley are listed at close to 6-2 230 pounds, and both have the speed and vision to break off long runs on any play. They are very similar backs that can make a defense pay even when they stack the box to stop the run, and especially when they don't. It truly is pick your poison with these two diverse and explosive offenses.
This Saturday's clash between the hedges will almost certainly play out much differently than that 20-13 slugfest in 2009, when both offenses struggled to score points against stout defenses. Both offenses are scoring over 40 points per game this year, with LSU averaging 480 yards per game to Georgia's 574. Both young defensive units have shown vulnerabilities, particularly against the run, with both giving up over 135 yards rushing per game.
If LSU's defense doesn't get more impact plays from the linebacker position, Gurley and speedster Nick Marshall are going to make it very difficult for LSU's defense to get off the field. This will be even more troubling if John Chavis can't find some depth behind stellar but overworked Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson at defensive tackle, who were both exhausted by the end of the Auburn game after playing nearly every snap.
It will be difficult for either defense to bother these seasoned quarterbacks as well. If LSU hopes to slow down Murray, they will need even better play from the defensive end position. Jordan Allen and Danielle Hunter have outplayed the more experienced Jermauria Rasco with aggressive and relentless pursuit of opposing passers, but the three of them only have 4 sacks between them through 4 games. They will have to do better than that to rattle Murray, who threw for over 300 yards against South Carolina's vaunted defensive front while surrounded by the security of Sanford's famous hedges. Improved play from LSU's talented but inconsistent secondary will go a long way in allowing the ends to pressure Murray, but they will have their hands full as he is throwing for over 360 yards per game.
Luckily for the Tigers, the Bulldogs have shown little ability to stop an offense like LSU's either. The Bulldogs gave up over 450 yards to both South Carolina and Clemson, and LSU may be even more balanced than either of them. Jeremy Hill has returned to give the Tigers a dangerous big play weapon in the backfield, although his numbers against Auburn were somewhat deceiving. Hill exploded out of the gate with 140 yards on his first 8 carries, but managed just 2.5 yards a carry the rest of the night with 17 carries for 43 yards against an Auburn defense that seemed to get tougher once the rain stopped. But as Auburn sold out to stop Hill, that is when Mettenberger made them pay.
If the offensive line continues to keep Mettenberger upright, and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham continue their dominant level of play, not even the best defenses in the country have much hope of slowing down Mettenberger, as he showed last year against Alabama. And Georgia is not one of the best defenses in the country.
After years of enduring what many felt were boring and sometimes maddening defensive struggles, LSU fans may have finally gotten their wish. In this brave and never boring new world, Tiger Nation had better get used to seeing high scoring shootouts against the better teams on the schedule. And the fun will start this weekend between the hedges.
Similar to the sense of dread felt when rivals watch the sun find it's home in the Western sky over Death Valley, opponents may indeed fear venturing into the prickly hedges of Sanford Stadium in Athens. But Zach Mettenberger is not the typical Bulldog opponent. He grew up in the shadow of that stadium, and his mother is still a secretary in the football offices. He is at home between the hedges, and realized his dream of wearing the red white and black of the Bulldogs in 2009. But his odyssey led him far from home for years before his epic return in two days. How he handles the emotion of being back in that stadium, clad in foreign purple and gold, will likely decide the outcome of the game.
Bulldog fans didn't get to see Mettenberger and Murray battle each other for the starting position that offseason, but they'll watch another sort of battle entirely between the hedges on Saturday afternoon.
'I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, because I'm not myself, you see.'