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LSU, Va. Tech have more than Top 10 ranking in common

BATON ROUGE, La. - When opponents arrive at LSU, their buses run through a purple and gold gauntlet of seething fans hurling a wide range of insults, a prelude to the earsplitting hostility the visitors face inside 92,000-seat Tiger Stadium.

This week, however, there's a sense in Baton Rouge that a more dignified welcome will be required when No. 9 Virginia Tech comes to town Saturday night.

A nearly 10-foot tall quilt, knitted by a student group that included several LSU players, arrived at the Tigers' practice facility on Wednesday, where head coach Les Miles signed it.

The iconic maroon and orange 'VT' of Virginia Tech was stitched into the center, accompanied by the names of the 32 victims of the shootings on campus last spring and surrounded by typical Louisiana symbols such as a Tabasco pepper sauce label.

Various members of the LSU community are signing the quilt, which will be presented to Virginia Tech alumni before the game.

On Thursday, the LSU athletic department published a letter, signed by Miles and team captains Matt Flynn, Glenn Dorsey and Craig Steltz, urging fans to be respectful to this weekend's guests.

'As students, fans and alumni from Virginia Tech come to the LSU campus for the Hokies' first road football game of the 2007 season, we know Tiger fans will welcome them with open arms and sympathetic hearts,' the letter said. 'The people of Louisiana are known for their heartfelt compassion and gracious hospitality, and on this occasion we hope everyone will pay particular respect to the Virginia Tech players and their fans.'

It's certainly not the usual buildup to a Saturday night in Death Valley, featuring two of the nation's top teams.

But second-ranked LSU and Virginia Tech will have more than their top 10 rankings in common when they take the field. Both know well the role they can play in helping communities rebound from tragedy, and it brings to their games a component that goes way beyond school pride.

'There are similarities between the two teams,' Miles said, recalling how LSU's 2005 season took on another dimension after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. 'It is a tremendous opportunity to rally for a cause. There isn't any question that it is a motivating factor. They will represent their state just like we felt obligated, and enjoyed doing, to represent ours in 2005.'

Ali Highsmith is among the LSU starters who played for the Tigers two seasons ago.

A number of people displaced by Katrina - a storm that struck Aug. 29, 2005, and was blamed for more than 1,600 deaths and tens of thousands of wrecked homes and business - were being housed at LSU when that season began. LSU's first home game was also pushed back several days by Hurricane Rita, which leveled coastal towns in southwest Louisiana about a month after Katrina.

Coming off a season-opening victory at Arizona State, the Tigers lost their home opener - an exhausting, overtime game against Tennessee. LSU's only other loss that season didn't come until the SEC championship game against Georgia.

'I wouldn't say it puts a lot of pressure on you,' Highsmith said. 'But I know at some point in time you feel like you have a big load on your back and you're just trying to carry all of those people ... You're just trying to give them something to smile about.

'It's a good motivator, actually,' the senior linebacker continued. 'For us, it really helped us a lot. A lot of people had a lot of homes and basically everything (destroyed), so if we could do something ... like donating clothes or donating food or winning, we were trying our best to do it. That's pretty much the type of atmosphere it brings to the table.'

Highsmith said teammates and coaches took time early in the week to reflect on 2005 and discuss the best way to be mindful of Virginia Tech's plight while at the same time matching, if not exceeding, the Hokies' intensity and focus on the football field.

After all, there's been a lot of talk around Baton Rouge about an 80-mile trip down the Mississippi River to the rebuilt Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans for the BCS Championship game in January. And the Tigers took a step in that direction last week with a 45-0 season-opening victory at Mississippi State.

SideBar: Virginia Tech at LSU

When: Saturday, 9:15 p.m.

Where: Baton Rouge, La.

TV/Radio: ESPN