By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
The Danny Etling era at LSU started off with a dime dropped into the back of the end zone, and D.J. Chark’s toe drag after hauling in the beautifully-thrown post route put points on the board.
Tiger Rag’s Gameday Coverage is Brought to you by Yuengling Beer, America’s Oldest Brewery, now available in Louisiana
A smothering pass rush made sure the Purdue transfer’s debut as LSU’s starting quarterback ended in victory — albeit with an ending that got too close for comfort.
Etling’s 37-yard scoring strike to Chark on third-and-10 jumpstarted the Tigers and never. Etling threw for 215 yards and Leonard Fournette ran for 149 yards with two touchdowns to lead No. 20 LSU (2-1, 1-0 SEC) to a 23-2 lead before having to hold on for dear life to outlast Mississippi State (1-2, 1-1 SEC) 23-20 in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
“It wasn’t perfect in any way,” LSU coach Les Miles said, “but we got it started. We got a real good start to conference play.”
Despite leading 23-3 well into the third quarter, LSU had to weather a feverish Bulldog comeback led by backup quarterback Damian Williams and set up by two Fournette fumbles and a recovered onside kick.
The Bulldogs got the ball back needing just a field goal to tie, though pinned back inside their own 25-yard line by a clutch 61-yard Josh Growden punt.
LSU defense turned up the heat and Arden Key eventually strip sacked Williams on fourth-and-8 to put the game on ice.
“We was pretty shocked,” Key said, asked about the game tightening at the end. “I feel like we left off the gas near the end, and it cost us, almost.”
Before the wild finish, the game was about a new-look LSU offense that raced out to a big early lead before going cold late.
Etling did has damage by spreading the ball around and taking what the defense gave him. He completed 19-of-30 passes, connecting with seven different receivers in the process. Miles even had enough confidence in the junior to keep throwing in with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.
“Extended plays, ad-libbed, did the things he was supposed to do,” Miles said of his quarterback. “Pretty accurate. I think he missed on maybe two throws. Made plays with his feet. I like him.”
His best work — and the difference in the football game — came on third downs. Led by Etling, LSU converted on 7-of-16 third down attempts. Meanwhile Mississippi State, besieged by an LSU pass rush that racked up six sacks, finished just 1-for-14 converting third downs.
Etling got the LSU offense moving after the two sides traded three-and-outs to begin the game.
Facing third-and-9, Etling took a hard hit in the pocket to find Malachi Dupre on a deep out route to convert. Fournette followed with an 11-yard dash, and three plays later Etling found Chark for the opening score.
According to Chark, fresh off his first career touchdown reception, the score came as a result of chemistry built when he and Etling were on the scout team together last year.
“It’s a great connection with Danny,” Chark said. “He’s a great leader. If he make a mistake, he takes the blame. If you make a mistake, he takes the blame. Knowing you have a guy like that at quarterback, it really motivates you to help him out any way you can.”
With the Bulldog offense stuck in neutral, LSU extended its lead late in the first quarter. Miles elected to take three points off the board after Mississippi State drew a flag for running into kicker Colby Delahoussaye, giving LSU a fresh set of downs. Three plays later, Fournette plowed into the end zone from five yards out for his first touchdown of the season.
The All-American tailback looked stronger as the first half went on, flashing both a vicious stiff arm and his patented truck stick in hammering away at the Bulldog defense. He took a toss and exploded around the left side for a 25-yard touchdown on the ensuing drive to give LSU a commanding 20-0 lead.
The two sides traded field goals heading into half time. The Tigers went to the locker room having outgained the Bulldogs by a staggering 282-80 margin.
“I feel like we were just executing,” center Ethan Pocic said. “Everyone was on the same page. Just playing football.”
The LSU offense wasn’t nearly as crisp in the second half, slowed some by the loss of starting tackles Toby Weathersby (ankle) and K.J. Malone (hamstring) to injury. Three third-quarter drives produced two punts and a lost Fournette fumble at midfield.
The turnover gave Mississippi State an opportunity to climb back into the game, but LSU’s front continually harassed quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and the secondary didn’t give his targets much room to operate. Safety Rickey Jefferson saved a touchdown with a leaping pass breakup in the end zone.
The Bulldogs cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth quarter, taking over after stripping Fournette short of the line to gain on fourth-and-1. Miles attributed the two uncharacteristic turnovers to rust, to some degree, after Fournette sat out last week with an ankle bruise.
“He’s one of the most ball secure runners that I’ve ever had and I’m sure he’ll continue to be,” Miles said. “It’ll just be a little refreshing course there.
Williams, who relieved Fitzgerald in the fourth, reached the ball across the goal line for a one-yard touchdown run to nine-play drive.
Mississippi State then cut the deficit to just a field goal by recovering a wild, high-hopping onside kick. Two plays later, Williams connected with Fred Ross for State’s second touchdown in one minute of elapsed time.
“The finishing of the game, if the offense doesn’t turn it over, we walk out there and don’t put anything in question,” Miles said. “An onside kick, two fumbles, they get back into the game when they should not have been.”