By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
A year ago, Danny Etling watched LSU’s 30-16 loss to Alabama far more comfortably than his teammates.
“I watched it in my bed,” said LSU’s redshirt junior quarterback. “Just sitting there. I wasn’t allowed to go to the game. So I just sat there, and watched the game.”
Etling doesn’t remember much about the defeat. A case of selective amnesia? Perhaps. Or maybe enough has happened in the 12 months since to have Etling’s mind elsewhere.
In the last year, Etling has moved from armchair quarterback to actual quarterback, taking over under center for Brandon Harris midway through the Tigers’ second game of the season. Since, he’s been as dependable as any first-year starter in LSU history. In his first four home starts, Etling has completed at least 60 percent of his passes for 200 or more yards, a feat unmatched by any quarterback in school history since at least 2000, the earliest game logs available to Tiger Rag.
Pulling that feat off in his fifth home start will be no small task. The Tide defense has allowed just one quarterback — Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly — to pass for 200 yards on 60 percent passing all season. In the 131 games coached by Nick Saban since 2007, only 22 times has his defense allowed a passer to reach those marks, but teams that manage to do so stand a much better chance of winning.
ALABAMA DEFENSE UNDER NICK SABAN
Record When Surrendering 200+ Passing Yards & 60% Passing,14-8,
Record in All Other Games,99-10
Against the SEC’s third-ranked secondary in both yards per game and passer rating, Etling knows he’ll have to be sharp. But he’s not looking at numbers to win.
“I’m ready to do whatever it takes to win the game,” he said. “Whether that’s throw for 400 yards or hand it off 60 times, I’m ready to do that. The main thing I want to come out of there with is a win.”
“You just have to play within yourself,” he added. “Do what you do best and make sure you take care of the football. Be smart with everything you do. If you do that, you’ll play well and give your team a chance.”
This Tide pass defense isn’t as statistically dominant as the one Etling watched from home last season. That group was second in defensive passer rating and first in opponent completion percentage, interceptions, and sacks. But it’s still an elite one, with Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen teaming up to generate the SEC’s best pass rush at four sacks per game.
Etling’s used to that sort of pressure — though not at LSU, where he’s been sacked just nine times. At Purdue, Etling was sacked 11 times as a sophomore and 31 times as a freshman. If you’ve noticed his ability to extend plays inside the pocket by stepping into it to avoid pressure, or his willingness to take hits and bounce back up for the next play, well, that’s because he’s had plenty of chances to learn.
“At Purdue it was a process,” Etling said of learning to take hits. “My freshman year I didn’t do a great job of it. My sophomore year I managed it somewhat better but still didn’t do great. The year off taught me a lot. As I’ve been playing this year I felt more confident and more relaxed. When you get hit you just have to shake it off and say, ‘OK that’s going to happen every once in a while.'”
What makes Alabama special, though, isn’t just its pass rush, but what its pass rush produces. The Tide have nine defensive touchdowns in 2016, many of the strip-sack or pick six variety. When things are going right, Alabama’s front hurries quarterbacks into bad decisions, and its secondary capitalizes on the back end. The key, according to Etling? “The clock in your head needs to stay the same.”
“When you play someone this talented, they practice too,” he said. “They’re gonna make plays. You just can’t go in there every time thinking you’re going to get sacked. You just play, trust your offense of line, and if something breaks down you react to it and try to make a play and minimize the damage as much as you can.”
Harris struggled with that last year. As the run game faltered, he looked to force the issue through the air, to no avail. He entered Tuscaloosa without an interception to his name in seven games prior, but tossed a costly pick on the first play of the second half when the score was still tied at 10. As the running game struggled, Harris took it upon himself to make a play, and it cost him. It’s a mistake Etling knows he can’t repeat.
“Do what you do well,” he said. “Understand who you are as a player and highlight those things with your play. You want to play your game still. You want to take shots and be aggressive but it doesn’t meant you are reckless with the football. There’s a fine line between the two.”
The good news is, Etling has all week to prepare against an LSU secondary and pass rush that’s every bit as good as Alabama’s. The Tigers are only a point behind Alabama in defensive passer rating, and Arden Key and Davon Godchaux are every bit as threatening to opposition QBs as Bama’s tandem.
“I think we have an extremely talented defense too,” he said. “I think they’ve done a good job of getting us ready to play a team of the caliber of talent that Alabama has.”
Not many quarterbacks look forward to taking on the Tide. But a year after watching from his television, Etling is eager to see what they look like in person.
“I definitely would rather prefer where I am now,” he laughed, “than where I was last year.”
Etling got some national attention last week when backup quarterback Lindsey Scott posted a video of Etling’s sign language conversation with a student from the Louisiana School for the Deaf.
Danny Etling holding a conversation with a student-athlete from Louisiana School for the Death. Personally thought it was pretty cool! pic.twitter.com/xU4T1mZass
— Lindsey Scott, Jr. (@_lj18_) October 28, 2016
It’s a skill Etling said he learned at his previous school.
“I learned sign language at Purdue,” he said. “It was my foreign language class. I took it for four semesters. All my teachers were deaf. You’re just kind of thrown in there, and you have to learn it. So that’s something I learned. It’s actually pretty useful. I use it more than I thought I would. You get to talk to people you normally wouldn’t talk to you. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.”
Asked when else he uses sign language, besides in conversation with others who know the language, Etling smiled and shied.
“Can’t say,” he grinned. “Maybe some signs on the field. Maybe getting in plays. The most I’ve used it for though is to communicate with different people. I’m not fluent, but enough to hold a conversation. My teachers would mostly talk to me about football. I was definitely able to hold a conversation with them about football.”