By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
LSU doesn’t have a quarterback controversy.
That was the message from LSU coach Ed Orgeron following the Tigers’ 35-26 victory over Syracuse at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
The media-savvy coach made sure to bring it up before being asked at his postgame press conference because he knew full well the way he handled his quarterbacks in the second half was sure to precipitate a few questions.
“I know you guys are going to ask about the quarterbacks,” Orgeron said approximately 10 seconds into his opening statement. “We wanted to give Myles Brennan some reps when the game was on the line and see what he can do. Obviously he did well in some situations; got to get better in other ones.
“Danny (Etling) is our starting quarterback. We just wanted to give Myles a chance when the game was on the line.”
There’s nothing peculiar about a coach wanting to get his backup quarterback some reps in the second half of a non-conference game against a three-touchdown underdog. Especially when the starter is a senior and said backup is a highly-touted true freshman billed as the future of the position.
But watching it in real time, the way LSU pulled Etling for Brennan and then went back to the veteran late as a commanding 28-10 lead evaporated to a two-point advantage — plus the ghost town that was a mostly-empty Tiger Stadium — made for a bizarre, almost surreal scene.
Etling had spent most of the first half running for his life behind a sieve-like offensive line before LSU finally made some adjustments.
The senior took a three-step drop before hitting Stephen Sullivan in stride for a 43-yard touchdown just before the half and dropped a dime to Drake Davis for an 87-yard scoring strike on a perfectly-thrown deep post from behind seven-man protection.
LSU led 21-10 with Etling completing six of his last seven throws for 159 yards and two scores before trading in his helmet for a baseball cap and a headset.
Brennan took over with 8:46 remaining in the third quarter and promptly drove the Tigers down the field for a touchdown. He masterfully read a third-down blitz and checked down to Darrel Williams, who rumbled for a 43-yard gain.
“Things kind of picked up,” Sullivan said of Brennan’s entrance. “Some guys thought he was going to go in there and freeze up a little bit, but he came in there and did what he had to do.”
Williams scored from 20 yards out on the next play to seemingly put the Orange away, but a special teams miscue pinned LSU back near its own goal line and Williams got taken down in the end zone for a safety.
That’s when things began to get wonky.
Syracuse took the ensuing kick and marched right down the field for a touchdown. Brennan, facing the pressure Etling dealt with all night, uncorked what should’ve been a pick six. The rookie did eventually throw an interception to end the drive — a case can be made it was the receiver’s fault — Syracuse scored again to get within two points.
As the game tightened up, it became less clear if Etling has been benched or if Brennan was just in for an aggressive form of mop-up work. Was he hurt? Was he benched?
Etling re-entered the game and LSU’s ground game finally put the victory on ice, but the yo-yoing left questions to be asked about what was going on under center.
“We wanted (Brennan) to get a taste of some live action to see what he can do,” Orgeron said. “But Danny is our quarterback. Myles did not beat him out or nothing like that tonight. It’s just a case that Myles is one play away if Danny gets hurt, so we wanted him to get that experience.”
To Etling’s credit, he didn’t pout during the game, stayed ready when LSU needed him and was a team player postgame when asked about being abruptly pulled.
“I didn’t think much,” Etling said, asked about his thoughts on being taken out. “I just do whatever the coaches say and move on from that … The coaches put the ball in my hands (at the end), so I was going to make sure I got us out of there with a win.”
So Etling’s job appears secure heading into next week’s non-conference finale against Troy. Projecting too far beyond that, however, it’s not so clear.
Here are the facts: LSU got smoked 37-7 in its Southeastern Conference opener against a Mississippi State team that went on the road this week and got housed 31-3 at Georgia. If LSU plays like it has the past two weeks, going 2-2 against a four-game stretch of at Florida, Auburn, at Ole Miss and at Alabama may be a pipe dream.
If the losses start piling up — unless the defense gets healthier and the offense makes some drastic steps forward, they will — the calls for Brennan will only amplify.
Fans are always itching to see heralded freshmen and the backup quarterback is usually the most popular guy in town. Going 4-of-6 for 75 yards with an interception was enough for some to anoint him on Saturday night.
Etling has a definite ceiling. He needs his offensive line to protect him and can’t win a game on his own. Orgeron, meaning no disrespect, has called him a “game manager” on multiple occasions, and it’s a fair title for a serviceable quarterback who struggles to make plays when his line and weapons aren’t playing well.
Ultimately he is not the future of LSU football — Brennan is. The way LSU managed the two on Saturday night felt like confirmation that the future might not be as far down the road as it once appeared.