By LUKE JOHNSON
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
The stage was set.
Less than two minutes remaining in the ball game, his team trailing by three, Zach Mettenberger entered stage right.
Cue the nervous glances and hand-wringing and silent prayers being sent skyward from the crowd.
He had already delivered the type of virtuosic performance that would make the most accomplished players stand and clap their hands together out of respect and gratitude for the way he executed on his once hallowed ground.
All that was left was The Drive. The final act in a drama so tense my neutral-colored and objective palms were sweating in the press box.
After taking a sack on first down, Mettenberger fired an 18-yard strike to Odell Beckham to move the chains toward the inevitable.
Cue the sportswriters scribbling out descriptors of the moment in their steno pads, words that were probably illegible because they weren’t looking at the paper. They couldn’t take their eyes off what was happening on the field. What was about to happen.
The stage was set.
But the script wasn’t already written.
For what felt like the first time all night, Mettenberger and the LSU offense fell short of glory that seemed predetermined. Mettenberger’s final attempt sailed above Odell Beckham’s outstretched hands on 4th and 10.
The Georgia sideline erupted and the crowd, which very well could’ve been cheering for Mettenberger instead of the equally masterful Aaron Murray, let loose an ecstatic roar of relief.
It had a chance to be perfect. The outcast returning to conquer his native land. The hero and the villain all at once. The only ending that would’ve sufficed for the game that just unfolded.
It wasn’t perfect, though. Things never are. But Mettenberger was as close as it gets Saturday night in his old stomping grounds.
Mettenberger spent the entire week leading up to the game downplaying its importance, reciting phrases from the Big Book of Clichés like it was scripture and he was at the pulpit.
It’s just another game.
It’s only important because it’s the next game.
Well, you know what? This wasn’t just another game. This was the game. It’s human nature to go back to the place you once called your own and want to show everyone what might’ve been.
And that’s exactly what he did.
For the better part of three adrenaline-fueled hours, Mettenberger was slinging darts all over the yard at Sanford Stadium. He might’ve been playing his first meaningful football at the place where he dreamed of playing, but he looked like he had been slinging it around between the hedges his whole life.
He was impervious to a fearsome level of noise from the crowd, guiding the LSU offense up and down the field with ease despite the fact that the offense most certainly could not hear his commands.
He didn’t flinch when the Bulldogs defense consistently beat the LSU offensive line. With hands in his face and massive bodies freight-training their way toward him, Mettenberger calmly rocked and fired as though he were playing against air.
He threw the ball in tight windows, like the one he threaded one to Jarvis Landry between what looked like the entire Georgia defense for 25 yards on third and 10.
He was clutch, like when he found Odell Beckham Jr. for a first down on third and forever with the Georgia student section gnashing its teeth right behind him.
He was perfect. Until the end. He finished 23-of-37 for a career-best 372 yards through the air, but it’ll be the last four passes, all of which fell incomplete, that Mettenberger will remember, and that is unfortunate.
The history books will remember it differently, but Mettenberger was for all intents and purposes a winner on Saturday. The performance he delivered in a hostile environment against a top-10 team should be remembered as the best of the last decade by an LSU quarterback, and that’s before considering the fact that Mettenberger had to be feeling the pressure of coming back home.
If there’s one thing that can be learned from the game it’s that nothing’s perfect, no matter how close it appears to be. Mettenberger’s checkered past and on-field rejuvenation that nearly 93,000 people were privileged enough to witness live was proof that imperfection can be just as awesome to watch if its done right.
After Murray kneeled away the game in an ending that didn’t suit the previous 59 minutes, a disappointed Mettenberger made his way to the visitor’s locker room, defeated for a day but not finished writing his story.
Exit, stage right.
And, if both teams win out, encore?