LSU’s confidence in Danny Etling obvious vs. Mississippi State, but bigger test looming at Auburn
Teammates entered and exited the postgame press conference room Saturday night calling Danny Etling’s name as media members swarmed LSU’s new quarterback.
The playful nature wasn’t uncommon for the Tigers — particularly on the heels of a victory — but the confidence and comfort in the junior on the night of his first start since transferring from Purdue had already become evident much earlier and often.
Both from his fellow players and his coaches.
“Extended plays, ad-libbed, did the things he was supposed to do. Pretty accurate. I think he missed on maybe two throws. Made plays with his feet. I liked him,” coach Les Miles said, later adding: “I do very much like Danny, and I think he’s done a great job, and I would anticipate that he would be in that position come that trip to Auburn here next week.”
Etling threw the ball 30 times in the 23-20 survival of Mississippi State — despite star running back Leonard Fournette returning to the lineup and rushing 28 times and despite the Tigers never trailing and leading by 20 for most of the evening.
He finished 19-for-30 (63.3 percent) with 215 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, added three rushes for 23 yards and didn’t suffer a single sack despite working behind an offensive line that Miles admitted was nicked-up and shuffled.
“I think I felt comfortable the whole game because I’ve played 12 games before this, the coaches really got me ready and I have really good teammates,” Etling said.
Incumbent starter Brandon Harris has attempted that many passes just twice in his career thus far — losses to Arkansas and Ole Miss last season in which LSU was playing from behind throughout the games.
Harris attempted 21 passes in the Tigers’ 16-14 season-opening loss to Wisconsin this season and just four against Jacksonville State last week before exiting in favor of Etling.
The Bossier City native has averaged 22.3 attempts, 11.7 completions (52.5 percent) and 168.1 yards per outing in his 14 starts prior to the early exit.
“It’s always been my desire to be 50/50 on any given down — not necessarily that it’s gonna be 50/50 — that you’re gonna have to defend the pass and the run,” Miles said. “I just felt like this is much more what we were in search of, but again, Danny Etling executed the things that we asked him to do. I think that that’s really the story here.”
LSU had been one of the nation’s most run-heavy offenses for most of Miles’ tenure — including the most run-heavy, according to some metrics.
Anthony Jennings transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette this year having never attempted more than 26 passes in a game.
He attempted 20 or more in fewer than half of his starts.
Even during a record-setting 2013 campaign, Zach Mettenberger attempted 30 or more passes on just three occasions and between 25-29 in just one other game.
Mettenberger averaged 24.7 attempts in a season in which he also attempted fewer than 20 passes three times.
“That’s something we’ve been working on for a while,” senior wide receiver Travin Dural said. “That’s something that we’ve preached we were gonna get better at. That’s something we’ve preached we were gonna do. And to actually come out and do it, that’s not a surprise. We work really hard in practice, and the coaches, they have faith in us. After a great week of practice, they feel like we can execute it. And that shows they have a lot of confidence in us and in Danny that they’re willing to throw it 30 times.”
For the most part, Etling excelled with those opportunities.
Seven different Tigers caught passes.
Fournette, Dural and wide receiver Malachi Dupre each tied for the team lead with four receptions, followed by receiver D.J. Chark’s three, full back John David Moore’s two and one each by tight end Foster Moreau and running back Derrius Guice.
Etling calmly evaded pressure, extended plays with his legs in a variety of ways and threw even his incompletions to locations where no defender would have an opportunity to snatch an interception.
“Danny did great,” Chark said. “He managed the game well. When you’re working with Danny, if he messes up, he takes credit for it, and if you mess up, he still takes credit for it. That’s a great leader right there. And seeing him out there perform, he never gets too high or too low, so it’s great playing with him.”
Said Etling: “You just read the defense and take what they give you. You have a great offensive coordinator and a lot of talented guys who can get open. So, honestly, when you have that much talent, you just try and find whoever beat their guy, and when you have a lot of time to do it, that always helps.”
But a bigger test awaits next week.
Etling’s statistics Saturday — at least attempts, completions and completion percentages — bore some resemblance to Jarrett Lee’s first start, eight years ago in similar circumstances.
Lee, a redshirt freshman at the time, completed 18 of his 27 attempts (66.7 percent) for 261 yards, two touchdowns and one interception Sept. 27, 2008, in a 34-24 defeat of Mississippi State, his first start in place of an injured Andrew Hatch.
The Brenham, Texas, native was less successful the following week at Florida, though.
He completed 23 of 38 passes (60.5 percent) for 209 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw two costly interceptions in a 51-21 loss to the Gators.
More recently, Harris burst onto the scene with an 11-for-14 (78.6 percent) performance Sept. 27, 2014, in his first extended action in a 63-7 rout of New Mexico State.
He compiled 178 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, rushed five times for 36 yards and led the Tigers to seven straight scoring drives.
A week later, he suffered a 3-for-14 effort (21.4 percent) at Auburn with 58 yards and no scores or interceptions in the 41-7 loss before being relegated back to the bench for the rest of the season.
“I always know Auburn’s gonna be tough,” Etling said. “It’s gonna be a tough place to play. We have to treat them with the respect they deserve. We have to go about our business this week and really have a good week of practice.”
But, just as they showed Saturday, Miles and the other Tigers move forward with a clear confidence in their new passer — even if they know work remains ahead.
“He’s gonna have to prepare,” Dural said. “That’s one of the loudest stadiums I have ever played in. They have a really good defense, a really solid secondary. You know they’re gonna be well-coached, and they’re gonna have it on their mind after last year’s game. We have to have a great week of practice and just tell Danny to stay calm, just sit back and relax and do the right things with the ball and everything else will take care of itself.”
Said Miles: “He’s comfortable with all the calls. He understands it takes some time, a good quality year, to understand the motions and the stems and what we do, but he’s really capable. He’s a very bright student of football and academics.”
Jerit Roser can be reached at Jerit@DatBoot.com.