By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
Heard the one about the competent quarterback who walked into LSU’s offense and changed the course of its season?
That’s no joke. On Saturday – for 15 minutes, at least – Danny Etling turned LSU’s passing game from a punch line into a punch-throwing prize fighter, completing 6-of-8 passing for 100 yards and a touchdown in the second quarter and leading the Tigers to the end zone on three straight offensive possessions.
There was nothing funny about Brandon Harris’ start to the game, or the season. The junior, once a beloved backup to Anthony Jennings in 2014, heads back to the bench after a terrible start to a promising campaign. In the 16-14 season-opening loss to Wisconsin, he threw two interceptions and misfired on multiple other occasions. LSU has yet to get a first quarter first down in 2016 with Harris under center. His quarterback rating through two games is 95.90, second-to-last in the SEC, leading only Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur (83.85).
“We got to get him comfortable and settled down and in the flow,” Miles said of Harris, “and I don’t know that that will happen. It just kind of depends on how this quarterback competition plays out.”
Harris’ problems appear to be more mental than mechanical. The boos that rained down from Tiger fans on Saturday night will do no good to repair Harris’ psyche, which was already so fragile that Les Miles banned him from media interviews down the home stretch of 2015.
Miles will have no such concerns with Etling. The Purdue transfer was the picture of calm during the game and after. During the game, he checked down to receivers. He stepped up into congested pockets. He went through his progressions. He threw on time and on target. He looked comfortable, because he was comfortable.
It’s why no fanbase has ever been more excited about a 6-of-14, 100 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception night from its quarterback than LSU’s is right now for Etling.
“It was pretty clear out there of who was going to be open and what the defense was trying to do for myself,” he told the press afterward. “There were some errant throws out there, and I wish I could get them back, but I’m going to keep getting better.”
After the game, he handled the press scrum like a pro. He praised his teammates. He deflected praise, and embraced criticism.
Perhaps it was the fumble, interception, and six straight incompletions he closed the game with that helped even out the adrenaline and tempered out any flames of ego that flared up during the second quarter.
More likely, it was his experiences prior to arriving at LSU that forged the invaluable, unteachable trait all good quarterbacks must have: poise. Etling oozes it.
He has since his days as a Boilermaker, when his head coach, Darrell Hazell, said Etling was going “to be a spectacular player for us” after his then-freshman quarterback shredded Indiana to the tune of 33-of-49 passing for 485 yards and 4 touchdowns.
“You see the poise that he’s starting to play with, and he’s starting to throw the ball with some accuracy,” Hazell said. “You’re going to see a great quarterback here.”
Hazell was wrong about the ‘here’, but right about the poise. Etling tried to play through an ankle injury as a sophomore but struggled, leading to his benching and eventual transfer from Purdue. He landed at LSU, thanks to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, a fellow Terre Haute, Ind. native who’d trained Etling as a prep.
That training was on full display during Saturday’s second quarter. For a productive and promising quarter, Etling fired on all cylinders. He made an inept offense look potent, as if it were entirely different scheme.
Except it wasn’t. It was the same playbook. The same playcalling. Etling just executed it better than Harris.
“It was just exactly the same offense that we have been running for as long as I can remember,” Miles said. “The pieces that are there have been there for quite some time.”
The only missing piece was a competent, consistent quarterback. “LSU just needs adequate quarterback play” is a long-since-beaten dead horse, but Etling’s display Saturday — the good and the bad — proved its merit. When Etling was good, LSU’s offense looked absolutely lethal. When Etling (and Harris) struggled, the offense looked arcane and lifeless.
Such has been the case throughout Miles’ tenure, particularly so since the 2007 national championship season, when Matt Flynn was good but not great. (Fun fact: Flynn’s 125.8 passer rating in ‘07 was worse than Jordan Jefferson’s career 127.8 passer rating). As LSU’s quarterbacks go, so go the Tigers.
In fact, a passer rating in that ballpark — 120.9 or better — essentially means LSU wins. Less than that, and the Tigers lose.
[table]Season (Record), LSU QB Rating in Wins, QB Rating in Losses, Overall QB Rating
2008 (8-5), 122.78, 109.54, 117.42
2009 (9-4), 139.26, 115.72, 139.91
2010 (11-2), 120.90, 103.98, 117.59
2011 (13-1), 151.98, 79.14, 147.55
2012 (10-3), 129.32, 120.02, 127.13
2013 (10-3), 169.08, 153.78, 164.72
2014 (8-5), 145.67, 106.63, 128.26
2015 (9-3), 142.17, 110.13, 130.03
AVERAGE, 140.15, 112.27, 134.08[/table]
Etling’s first half performance netted him a 221.25 passer rating, but his second half slump saw that dip to 112.14. As good as he was in the first half of his debut, he’ll have to be much better in his first LSU start Saturday against Mississippi State.
Good news is: he’s well aware.
“I had an okay first half,” he said. “I’d have liked to have had a much better second half. I’m not too worried. I think we’re going to keep improving as a team.”
The better news: he’s self-aware. The rigors of a sophomore benching at Purdue matured Etling, as did a season on the sidelines redshirting at LSU, serving as the scout team quarterback, playing the role of Dak Prescott and Chad Kelly but rarely Danny Etling. Some cripple under such downfalls. Etling knows their pain.
“Football, it’ll bring you to your knees some time,” he said. “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.”
He’ll roll on with more weapons than he’s ever had at his disposal. A second half like his Saturday would have sunk his teams at Purdue or as a prep. This team, Etling knows, isn’t like those teams.
LSU doesn’t need a savior. It just needs a quarterback. Etling doesn’t have to walk on water. He just needs to keep hitting the check down to his tailback.
“A lot of the plays we had tonight, on special teams and defense, I didn’t really get in high school or at Purdue,” he said. “It’s nice to be a part of a team win like this.”
He’ll look forward to more, but to get there, he’ll have to be better. He’ll have to have four good quarters. Not one.
Fortunately for Etling, he doesn’t have to save the Tigers. He just needs to quarterback them. If he can manage that, he’ll be exactly the answer under center LSU has long awaited.
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