By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
An eerie feeling of familiarity permeated Tiger Stadium on Saturday night. It felt like everyone was watching something that they not only expected to happen, but something they knew was coming because they’d all seen it before.
Boos cascaded down from every corner of the stands as LSU’s embattled starting quarterback struggled mightily against an FCS foe the week following a deflating loss. The groans growing louder with each inaccurate pass or duck forced into triple coverage.
The frustrated masses rising in applause as the backup made his way out onto the field in relief. That aha moment when said second-stringer seemingly sparked a stagnant offense into high gear.
Yeah, it felt a bit like the fall of 2014 as Les Miles pulled the trigger on a change under center with his team trailing Jacksonville State 3-0. His offense having just failed to accrue a first down in the first quarter for the second consecutive week.
Only this time Brandon Harris wasn’t playing the part of promising upstart ready to take the reins and drive LSU into the future. That role now belongs to Danny Etling, apparently.
Instead Harris finds himself an incumbent starter who regressed severely enough to lose his job after five unsightly quarters of football. Then he watched his backup, a guy who once lost his starting job at Purdue, seemingly bring the offense back to life.
“(We) went a couple series and really felt like Brandon was not comfortable,” Miles said. “So we figured we would bring Danny in. He was productive certainly almost right away.”
Etling completed 6-of-8 passes for 100 yards, including a 46-yard scoring strike to a streaking DeSean Smith, as LSU exploded for 27 points in the second quarter. He played with poise and made quick decisions.
Not to mention that he did it by utilizing the kind of simple, low-risk plays that Harris routinely struggles to execute. Short passes. Unitizing the tight ends. Throwing screens and check downs to the backs out of the backfield. He did so without the services of Leonard Fournette, who stood alongside Harris in sweats nursing an ankle bruise.
“He stepped in,” said Derrius Guice, who started in Fournette’s stead. “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.”
ESPN panned to Harris standing with his helmet off on the sidelines often as Etling engineered three consecutive touchdown drives. It’s prudent to not read too much into it, but body language and facial expression alone conveyed he wasn’t happy — and who could blame him?
Miles acknowledged Saturday that the switch could have happened even sooner. Miles said he considered inserted Etling into LSU’s 16-14 loss to Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, but decided against it because he “didn’t want to bring in in an ugly spot” that could adversely affect his play.
There’s no sure-fire way of telling if that would’ve been the case. Perhaps Etling could have saved LSU’s proverbial bacon with a late scoring drive against Wisconsin.
However, judging by the way he responded to the adversity of taking a 20-minute break for halftime, you’d be hard-pressed to express any certainty that that would have been the case.
Etling didn’t complete a pass in the second half, misfiring on all six attempts. He lost a fumble on a strip sack — a giveaway more on the left side of the offensive line than on Etling — and threw an interception by underthrowing Malachi Dupre a one-on-one jump ball deep.
“You have to realize that you don’t win the job with that throw,” Miles said, “you really injure your opportunities.”
Miles also pointed to the many positives he took from Etling’s performance. He applauded Etling’s willingness to hit check-downs when the defense backed off and praised the decision to run in a third-quarter touchdown off play action instead of throwing once the defense got moving laterally.
“That was exactly the right decision,” he said.
The next decision belongs to Miles and Cam Cameron. Shouldn’t be a difficult one, either.
There’s only one option.
Miles didn’t commit to a starting quarterback for next Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi State. He repeatedly used the phrase “competition” when talking about the coming week of practice for his two signal callers.
Asked if Etling could win the starting job, Miles emphatically answered “absolutely.” Given what transpired Saturday, the obvious lift that Etling’s simple, crisp execution brought to the offense, he must get the opportunity to start against the Bulldogs.
Harris hasn’t shown anything in five quarters of football that’d indicate a turnaround is coming soon. Between the high throws and poor decision making, he appears to be doing way more thinking than playing at this point in the proceedings. His issues are too widespread to sort out in a week of practice.
That’s why Miles and Co. must plow forward full-steam ahead and hope to catch lightning in a bottle in Etling. For one, Tiger Stadium could devolve into the epicenter of a riot if Harris is simply handed back the starting gig he threw away in such spectacular fashion.
But that doesn’t mean Harris can simply be banished to the bench. Cameron, now in his third year of mentoring the inconsistent gunslinger, must figure out how to get Harris’ head straightened out sooner rather than later.
That process begins with resurrecting whatever’s left of his confidence after getting booed and benched during a home opener.
“Well, the season is a long season,” Miles said. “We’re going to need both of them and I would expect a competition both guys would understand and that we go forward from here.”
Etling’s failure to complete a pass after halftime threw the emergency brake on his own runaway hype train to some degree. A splash of cold reality that engineering three consecutive scoring drives against an overmatched FCS foe doesn’t make a quarterback ready to start slicing up the SEC.
Hell, Etling didn’t look nearly as sharp as Harris did when he wrestled the starting job away from the struggling Anthony Jennings back in 2014. Harris uncorked as many touchdowns (three) that night as he did incompletions and lead seven consecutive scoring marches upon entering.
Miles and Cameron had found their franchise quarterback, it appeared, in a confident rookie with a cannon for an arm. LSU had finally hit on a high school quarterback all its own. The future was at hand, so to speak.
Obviously that’s not what happened. Harris unraveled on the road in his first career start one week later. The reverberations of that 41-7 shellacking at the hands of Auburn sent Harris to the sideline for the remainder of the season and Jennings back at the helm.
As fate should have it, LSU heads back to Jordan-Hare Stadium after hoisting Mississippi State this Saturday. Harris has surely had the game circled on his calendar for a long time. Who wouldn’t want their shot at vindication?
If Etling plays well this week, Harris will certainly be relegated to spectator status on the Plains. But, be warned, with Miles in charge, these quarterback changes don’t always take the first time around. Harris should know that better than most.