By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Neither a bruised hand nor a gimpy leg were going to keep Danny Etling from going out with a bang on Senior Night.
There’s just something about finales that bring out the best in him.
Etling delivered his best performance in his Tiger Stadium swan song, lighting up Texas A&M for 347 yards — the highest total of his career in purple and gold — and three touchdowns as LSU rolled the Aggies 45-21 on Saturday night.
“Fun game to be a part of,” he smiled.
He had help, of course, from some of his fellow honorees on Senior Night. Four Tigers scored touchdowns during their finale night in Death Valley — five if counting projected first-round draft picks — and LSU forced four turnovers, but it was the oft-criticized signal caller who led the onslaught.
“Danny was money all night with the passing game,” center Will Clapp said. “He always comes out for the last game of the season ready to go. Danny is a fighter.”
It’ll go down in the latest shellacking handed out by LSU to its closest geographic conference foe. LSU has beaten the Aggies seven consecutive meetings, including all six since Texas A&M joined the Southeastern Conference.
Adding insult to injury, LSU has now hung 99 points and 1,223 yards of total offense in its past two meetings with former defensive coordinator John Chavis. Chief and his boss, Kevin Sumlin, are expected to be handed their walking papers sometime in the aftermath of this latest season-ending blowout.
LSU (9-3, 6-2 SEC) finishes its first regular season under Ed Orgeron winners of three in a row and post a 6-2 record in SEC play for the first time since 2012. A win in the bowl game would mean the Tigers win 10 games for the first time since 2013.
“I think this is a good accomplishment for our football team,” Orgeron said. “It’s not great, but it’s good.”
Though it’s not a championship, the benchmark Orgeron strives for, winning nine games certainly seemed like a pipe dream following the embarrassing Troy loss that dropped LSU to 3-2 way back when.
From that all-time low LSU rallied to win six of its final seven games, losing only a hard-fought battle on the road at Alabama.
“I think this team, since that day, has been a different team,” tight end Foster Moreau said. “Without Troy I think we lose to Auburn. Without losing to Troy, I think we might lose the next week (against Florida). We might not play the way we played. That was the turning point in the season. That was the kick we needed.”
“That Troy loss, it’s not what the program needed, but it woke us up,” defensive end Rashard Lawrence said. “We had to come out and show what we can do. I don’t really know (where the season would’ve gone without the Troy loss). It’s a game of inches. You never really know.”
Like the season it capped, things got off to a rather inauspicious start Saturday night.
Senior J.D. Moore lost a fumble on the first play from scrimmage, but it didn’t cost LSU anything and he made up for it later on. Greedy Williams jumped a slant route and picked off Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel in the red zone to take the ball right back.
“Coach O says we need to make game-changing plays,” Williams said, “and I felt like that was one of those plays that changed the game for us.”
That drive led to a 46-yard field goal from Jack Gonsoulin. Another takeaway — Kevin Toliver forced a fumble and senior Donnie Alexander scooped it up — set up another Gonsoulin field goal on the following drive.
A 49-yard bomb from Etling to fellow senior DJ Chark set up LSU deep in Aggie territory late in the quarter. Facing third-and-9, Etling hit a diving Russell Gage — yup, another senior — on a slant route for the game’s first touchdown. Etling’s 259 yards passing in the field half surpassed his season-high coming into Saturday.
Senior tailback Darrel Williams put the Tigers ahead 20-0 in the second quarter with a drive all his own. The bruising back took an inside screen pass and weaved deep into Aggie territory for a 56-yard gain and cashed in a touchdown from a yard out.
LSU had plenty of chances to blow the game open from there, but a pair of missed field goals from Gonsoulin allowed the Aggies to hang around. Texas A&M then drove down and scored a touchdown before the half — the third straight week LSU has allowed a score inside the last two minutes of the half.
That momentum carried over through the intermission. Texas A&M came out firing in the second half and Starkel found a wide open Damion Ratley standing all by himself in the LSU secondary for a 45-yard touchdown to cut the lead down to six.
Tense moments followed an LSU three-and-out, but the thinning crowd let out an audible sigh of relief when Donte Jackson undercut a skinny post and intercepted Starkel.
“We needed it,” Orgeron said. “You could feel the team into a little lull right there and you could feel the momentum changing.”
A physical catch-and-run from freshman Clyde Edwards-Helaire got LSU within the A&M 5-yard line and Derrius Guice fought his way into the end zone to punch in on the takeaway for six. But Texas A&M answered right back, led by Starkel, to again trim the lead to six.
Etling responded in kind, driving the Tigers deep into Texas A&M territory once more. He came up throwing on a run-pass option and hit Moore in the flats running left. The future architect hurdled an Aggie defensive back and rolled into the end zone for his second career touchdown.
“I tried a hurdle and failed earlier this year against Ole Miss,” Moore laughed. “Russ (Gage) came to me and had some pointers. Honestly, this time instincts took over and I’m lucky I got over. It definitely wasn’t in the plan or premeditated. I’m just glad it worked out.”
The defense came up with another stop and LSU’s crew of seniors put the game on ice. Williams, lined up in the wildcat, broke loose again and rumbled for 77 yards to the A&M 6. Etling then hit Chark for the touchdown.
Kicker Connor Culp, who replaced Gonsoulin after his second miss, connected on a short field goal in the fourth goal to cap the scoring. LSU scored three on its following four possessions after the three-and-out to begin the half while the defense tightened up.
LSU coaches will now hit the road and recruit as the Tigers await what should be a rather desirable bowl destination. For the players, there’s some celebrating to do before hitting the books in the interim.
“I’m really happy for the seniors,” Gage said. “The way we meshed together tonight was a perfect way to end it.”