BATON ROUGE – Light fare was on the menu at LSU coach Les Miles’ weekly press luncheon Monday – no quarterback controversy questions, no major injury news and no discussion of an assistant coach glut on the sidelines.
And Miles seemed more spirited than in recent weeks as his No. 17 ranked team – up five spots in the USA Today Coaches poll – prepares to play at unranked Auburn (1-2, 0-1 SEC) after winning two straight, including a 23-20 win over Mississippi State in its SEC opener Saturday to get to 2-1 and 1-0.
The Tigers will enter Auburn with a defense that is ranked in the top five in the SEC in all major statistical categories – No. 3 in scoring defense (16.3 points allowed a game), No. 5 in total defense (325.7 yards allowed a game), No. 5 in pass defense (222.3 yards allowed a game) and No. 5 in rush defense (103.3 yards allowed a game).
The offense is not ranked high in any major categories, but it appears headed that way with new starting quarterback Danny Etling, who has looked excellent in spots – 6-of-8 passing in the second quarter with 46-yard touchdown against Jacksonville State on Sept. 10 and 14 of 20 for 172 yards with a 37-yard touchdown in the first two quarters of his first LSU start Saturday. LSU led 23-3 at the half before stalling in the second half and having to hold on for the narrow win as tailback Leonard Fournette suffered two momentum changing fumbles while rushing for 147 yards on 28 carries with two first half touchdowns.
“Our offense got off to a fast start,” said Miles, who has not been able to say that very often over the last few years. “Should this offense come to play for 60 minutes, we would be happy about it. I think Danny Etling has done a great job moving the ball around and doing the things we ask him to do. Seven players caught passes – three wide receivers, two fullbacks a tight end and a tailback.”
Etling finished 19 of 30 for 215 yards and will likely be playing virtually all the time for the rest of the season, barring injury, consistently poor play or very lopsided scores. A two-quarterback rotation involving former starter Brandon Harris that Miles hinted at last week no longer appears to be in the plans.
“What we’re going to do is we’re going to let Danny take the next snaps and continue his path and hope that he continues to improve,” Miles said. “And at some point, in time down the road, we’re going to look around and say, ‘Boy, that quarterback play that we got was great.'”
That has not happened at LSU since Zach Mettenberger was the quarterback in 2013.
“I think there is more confidence offensively,” Miles said.
Asked if Etling will be pulled if he makes a mistake, Miles said simply, “No.”
Fournette looks healed from an ankle injury that bothered him before the season and a related ankle injury suffered in the opening loss against Wisconsin.
“It was nice to see Leonard back,” Miles said. “Number seven is running like he would run. He’ll get nothing but better. I think he’s kind of getting a little of the rust off and looking forward to these series of games that can make a difference.”
After Auburn, LSU hosts Missouri (1-2, 0-1 SEC) on Saturday, October 1, at 6:30 p.m. on the SEC Network before traveling to No. 16 Florida (3-0, 1-0 SEC) on October 8.
“That ankle feels good, apparently, I’m told. There was no swelling. So we are full speed ahead,” Miles said.
LSU’s offensive line battled adversity and may have established more depth because of it in the Mississippi State game as four starters went down with injuries – right tackle Toby Weathersby (ankle sprain), right guard Josh Boutte (knee), left tackle K.J. Malone (heat cramps) and left guard William Clapp (shoulder). Only Weathersby did not return to the game as he sat out the second half. This forced the Tigers to use several different combinations and eight linemen in all.
Starting center Ethan Pocic moved to left tackle for the first time in his career at one point with reserve Andy Dodd replacing him at center. Maea Teuhema played right guard and right tackle, and backup Garrett Brumfield played right guard. The makeshift line allowed zero sacks.
“At one point it was weird in the game,” tight end Foster Moreau said. “I was going up to the line, and I saw Pocic at left tackle. And I was like, ‘No way. I haven’t practiced this. I don’t know what we’re doing.’”
Miles expects all of the linemen back for Saturday’s game with the possible exception of Weathersby, who will likely be questionable with the ankle. “I think a couple of those guys may need a day off,” he said.
Miles was particularly proud of the defense, which returned to a 4-3 front from the 3-4 that new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has installed. LSU collected five sacks with outside linebacker Arden Key getting two, including one that ended State’s last possession.
“Defense, I think it’s exciting,” Miles said. “Great speed, fun to watch. There’s more enjoyment when the defense goes on the field in that we can continue to improve. Turned the ball over twice in the second half (and State cut a 23-6 lead to 23-20 late in the fourth quarter), but I’m really proud of how that defense came on the field and played when we needed them.”
Key, who plays defensive end in the 4-3, has five sacks on the season for No. 2 in the nation and was named the SEC defensive lineman of the week. Punter Josh Growden was named the SEC special teams co-player of the week as he had punts of 65 and 61 yards and a 49.2-yard average. His 61 yarder put State in bad field position for its final, failed drive. In the season opener, Growden struggled with a 32.4-yard average.
“Josh Growden probably had as most significant night as he could have. Late in the game, he flipped the field, and that made a tremendous difference,” Miles said.
“Overall, felt like we improved,” Miles said. “I think this football team is improving.”