Spreadsheet Quarterback: LSU’s intermediate issues

By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a (hopefully) season-long look into LSU’s quarterback play. I’ll be charting every throw made by an LSU quarterback in 2017, with as much detail as possible. If you’d like any particular aspect of the Tigers’ passing game analyzed, comment below or hit me up on Twitter, and I’ll track it. This week: the intermediate struggles.  

Week One: First down success vs. BYU | Week Two: LSU shows off its deadly deep ball vs. Chattanooga | Week Three: Etling Under PressureWeek Four: I Was Too Busy Doing This and Making a Magazine to Chart a Loss to Troy

Walking down Victory Hill shortly before LSU’s loss to Troy earlier this season, Danny Etling stopped to pose for a picture with a fan holding one of the more blunt signs you’ll ever see at a college football game.

“Danny Etling is a good quarterback,” the sign said.

The sign’s right. Danny Etling is a good quarterback. That’s not a subjective opinion. It’s objective fact. According to just about every metric, Etling in 2017 has been good.

Passer rating? He’s at 149.72, fourth in the SEC. LSU has had a quarterback finish fourth in the SEC in passer rating exactly once since JaMarcus Russell won the Manning Award in 2006 (Zach Mettenberger, 2013, 2nd). That 149.72 rating is more than 20 points better than Matt Flynn’s in LSU’s 2007 national championship season, and one point better than Matt Mauck’s SEC-best figure of 148.2 in LSU’s 2003 national championship season.

Yards per attempt? Second in the SEC (8.9). Touchdown to interception ratio? Third in the SEC (6-to-1). He’s even been good with his legs.  Take away sacks, and Etling has carried 20 times for 153 yards, good for a 7.65 yard per carry average. Against Florida, Etling picked up two first downs with his legs, both critical third downs. With 4.0 highlight yards per opportunity, Etling – not Derrius Guice or Darrel Williams – has been LSU’s most explosive rusher out of the backfield in 2017.

Across the board, Etling’s numbers are solid, but there are two key areas he’s going to need to improve as LSU enters the hardest part of the schedule. Etling is a good quarterback. Here’s where he falls short of being a great quarterback.

THE INTERMEDIATE GAME

If you break down Etling’s throws into five-yard chunks, it’s clear where his strengths and weaknesses are. He’s explosive with the deep ball, accurate on the short throws, but struggles between 10 and 20 yards, where arm strength and timing are critical to delivering the ball into tight spaces.

Danny Etling Accuracy Percentage, by Yardage

[table] YardageAccuracy Percentage

0 yards or less, 87.5%

1-5 Yards, 80.56%

6-10 yards, 85.0%,

11-15 yards, 35.29%

16-20 yards, 50.0%,

20+ yards, 54.55% [/table]

It’s that 11-15 yard gap, in particular, where Etling struggles, particularly outside the hashes. He is accurate and has great touch, and he can throw the ball with great distance, but he lacks the top-end zip to fit the ball into that Cover 2 gap on the sidelines.

It’s even clearer when you break it down in passer rating.

Danny Etling Passer Rating, by Yardage 

[table]Yardage, Passer Rating

1-10 yards, 130.78

11-19 yards, 117.3

20+ yards, 244.0 [/table]

Teams are starting to adjust to this. Florida appeared to play a lot of Cover 2 against LSU, a luxury it can afford because of the Tigers’ struggling running attack. They took away the inside and forced LSU to throw down the sidelines, which is why Etling’s only completion to a receiver was a 47-yarder to D.J. Chark down the right sideline that could’ve been picked, if not for Chark’s strength against Duke Dawson.

Solutions are limited for LSU’s intermediacy issues. Ed Orgeron could play Myles Brennan, who has more zip on his throws and can hit the sidelines with accuracy – his touchdown pass to Foster Moreau against Troy is a prime example of how he can fit the ball into tight windows. But Brennan is young and a bit turnover prone early in his career: 11% of his passes have been interceptable so far, compared to just 4.2% of Etling’s.

Etling’s arm isn’t going to get any stronger, but he can throw with better timing. The ball above to Sullivan would’ve been fine thrown a half-second earlier.

The easiest fix, though, is for LSU’s power running game to return to 2016 levels, which would draw a safety back into the box and give Etling more single-coverage looks to work against. The Tigers are down to 4.78 yards per carry in 2017 from 6.09 in 2016, and rank 110th nationally in run game explosiveness (Rushing IsoPPP). If Derrius Guice can get back to his explosive norms (3.0 highlight yards/opp in 2017, 10.2 highlight yards/opp in 2016), it’ll shore up this deficiency greatly.

THIRD DOWNS

Third down is the hardest down to throw on. The defense can typically pin its ears back and pressure the quarterback, and we’ve discussed before how Etling struggles with pressure.

Here’s a down-by-down breakdown of Etling, from CFBStats.com.

Digging into my numbers, I see a few things. In terms of success rate (picking up 50% of yards on first down, 70% on second, and 100% on third/fourth), Etling’s twice as successful on first down (55.81%) as third (27.03%). He’s negated some of that third down struggle by picking up a few with his legs, but it’s still an issue.

He’s getting pressured more on third downs: 16 times to be exact, which is the same as he’s been pressured on first (10) and second (6) combined. He’s also had three third down drops for 25 yards, which hurts, but not a ton.

As for why Etling has struggled on third downs, my guess is a combination of factors. The pressure is key, but so is the fact that third down play action is very difficult to execute, and Etling has been very reliant on play action this season, with a passer rating of 209.23 on all play action attempts. Play action takes time and protection to develop, and when the defense brings the heat, it requires premium protection, which hasn’t come consistently this season. (It has improved, though: Etling was pressured on just three throws against the Gators, not accounting for rushing attempts.)

MISCELLANEOUS

  • Etling has been slightly more accurate from under center (73% accuracy) than shotgun (67%), but has thrown 92 times from shotgun to just 26 under center.
  • Etling has run as many play actions on first down (20) as second and third combined (14 and 6, respectively).
  • Of Etling’s five interceptable attempts, only one has been intercepted.
  • Etling (11.28) and Brennan (11.22) have almost identical average distances of target
  • Etling is feasting on deep play action, with a passer rating of 329.47 on play action attempts of 20+
  • Brennan has been accurate on 6 of 8 third down attempts (75%).

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