By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
For 15 minutes, LSU had a quarterback.
A shot in the arm from Danny Etling, plus 155 yards and a score from Derrius Guice, a pinch of special teams magic, and a second half defensive turnaround, turned out to be the right recipe for a much-needed 34-13 win over Jacksonville State in the Tigers’ home opener.
Etling came off the bench in relief of a foundering Brandon Harris and engineered three straight scoring drives in the second quarter, sparking the Leonard Fournette-less Tigers (1-1) to life.
Harris left the field to boos. The crowd greeted Etling with raucous cheers, and the ovation only got louder by the quarter’s end.
“(We) went a couple series and really felt like Brandon was not comfortable,” said LSU head coach Les Miles. “So we figured we would bring Danny in. He was productive certainly almost right away.”
The two teams played a scoreless first quarter. LSU went three and out twice on Harris’ watch, totaling just 12 yards on six plays. As Gamecock quarterback Eli Jenkins drove the visitors within striking distance, Etling began warming up. A 30-yard field goal from Cade Stinnett put Jacksonville State up 3-0 four seconds into the second quarter, setting the stage for the junior to enter the game.
He nearly had to wait even longer.
Donte Jackson returned the ensuing kick for a score, but a hold on sophomore defensive back Xavier Lewis brought the play back and opened the door for Etling’s LSU debut.
“I should probably thank Xavier for the penalty,” Etling laughed.
So should the rest of his teammates — especially those on offense. Etling dazzled in the second quarter, completing 6-of-8 passes for 100 yards and a score – a 46-yard strike to a streaking DeSean Smith down the left sideline to give LSU a 6-3 lead. It was a drastic offensive turnaround from a team that still has not picked up a first down in the first quarter of a game this season.
“He stepped in,” said Guice, who started in place of Fournette, sidelined with an ankle injury. “As a two, along with myself, you have to be ready to play when your name is called upon. He did a great job of filling in for Brandon and picking the momentum of the game up.”
Etling had worked in and out with LSU’s first team offense this week in practice. Miles said all along he could play, should Harris struggle, something Etling took to heart.
“I always expect that I’m going to play every week, just so that if it does happen, I’m not caught off guard,” said Etling. “I prepared just like I would play.”
Etling wasn’t the only second-teamer to star on the night. Guice added the team’s second score of the game on the next drive, scoring from four yards out for a 13-3 LSU lead. Guice carried six times on the eight play drive, finding holes opened thanks to an improved passing game.
This, after he didn’t find out until the last minute he’d be the team’s bell cow for the night.
“I like Guice,” said Miles. “Guice came in, he was 19 carries for 155 and shows that he’s a pretty special back in and of himself.”
After Jenkins hit Krenwic Sanders for a 76-yard score to make it 13-10, Bry’Keithon Mouton capped off a five-play, 64-yard drive with a plunge from two yards out, good for a 20-10 LSU lead with 1:07 left in the half.
Mouton’s first career touchdown made it three straight Tiger scores, but the fourth was the best. Miles took two timeouts to force a Jacksonville State punt with less than a minute left in the half, and Tre’Davious White fielded the subsequent punt at LSU’s 40. He ran backwards to the 19, before taking it the distance for one of the finest punt returns in school history to give LSU a 27-10 halftime lead.
Tre'Davious White. Wow. pic.twitter.com/0yJ2k92b1D
— Tiger Rag (@Tiger_Rag) September 11, 2016
“He went back 21 yards before he started to go forward on that return,” said Miles. “So, he should get double credit for that running.”
Etling made it 34-10 with a third quarter rushing score, the lone bright spot in a second half that saw him misfire on all six passing attempts. He finished just 6-for-14 for 100 yards, 2 TDs (1 rushing), an interception, and a fumble.
“I had an okay first half,” Etling said. “I’d have liked to have had a much better second half. I’m not too worried…Just missed some throws here and there. Would have liked to have had a couple back. I wasn’t too down on any of my decisions. I just have to make better throws.
“It was pretty clear out there of who was going to be open and what the defense was trying to do for myself. There were some errant throws out there, and I wish I could get them back, but I’m going to keep getting better.”
Miles liked what he saw from his junior signal-caller, though he noted a similar need for improvement. He particularly enjoyed Etling’s willingness to dump the ball short after going through his progressions, as evidenced by the three receptions and 27 receiving yards tallied by running back Darrel Williams.
“He did the check downs,” said Miles. “It’s night and day. If the deep post is covered and there’s nothing on a crossing route and you hit it to a back and the back can turn, you can see, Darrel had a couple really nice check down runs…I thought that those were nice adjustments by Danny.”
After a rocky start, LSU’s defense had an excellent second half. The Tigers gave up 227 first half yards, but held Jacksonville State (1-1) to just 141 after the break. Jenkins, the reigning FCS Quarterback of the Year, finished 17-for-35 passing for 248 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception — a snag by Donte Jackson, who made amends for a busted coverage on the score.
“Eli Jenkins is an All-American, he’s got great speed. Did you see that big back? Oh my goodness. That offense was a real offense okay? Did you see the size of the receivers that were catching balls? I want you to know something, I, they looked like a big strong could have played in any league. So they haven’t lost many games in their time that coach has been there. You see why. I think we lined up against a very quality team today. Quality.”
LSU will take on Mississippi State next weekend in Baton Rouge, a 6 p.m. scheduled kickoff on ESPN2. Etling will, almost certainly, be the starter, but having lost his job before at Purdue, he knows not to get too far ahead of himself.
“I imagine that we’re going to keep competing at all times,” he said. “If I start out slow, then we may go a different way. It’s all about production and making good decisions for the team. If I’m not doing that, I would expect them to make a change as well.”
QUOTES TO NOTE
“Football, it’ll bring you to your knees some time. It’ll be sad, it’ll knock you down. But if you don’t love the game, you can’t bounce back. I was a young kid at Purdue. I’ve grown up a lot in the last year. I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum. It’s never fun. But this position, it’s one of criticism and one that’s going to bring a lot of attention, as well. Obviously, take it with a grain of salt and keep rolling.” – Danny Etling