BATON ROUGE – Danny Etling threw six passes in the second half of LSU’s 34-13 win over Jacksonville State Saturday night. He missed on five of those, and one was intercepted in the end zone. He also lost a fumble. He finished 6 of 14 for 100 yards with a 46-yard touchdown pass to tight end DeSean Smith and ran for a 2-yard touchdown.
Statistically speaking, it was not the greatest debut by an LSU quarterback in history. In fact, in the first prolonged playing time of his career, former LSU starting quarterback Brandon Harris completed 4 of 5 passes for 62 yards with an 8-yard touchdown pass and a 46-yard touchdown run off the bench in a 56-0 win over Sam Houston State in 2014.
At another school, or at another time at LSU, if Etling was the regular starting quarterback, and turned in such a second half as he did Saturday, he might be benched.
Instead, he is the toast of Baton Rouge at the moment, which tells you just how bad the quarterbacks and passing games have been at LSU since 2008 with the exception of the first part of the 2011 season with Jarrett Lee and all of 2013 with Zach Mettenberger. Etling will start Saturday when the Tigers (1-1) host Mississippi State (1-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) at 6 p.m. in Tiger Stadium.
LSU coach Les Miles did not come out and say that after the game Saturday, but he was being nice and respectful to Harris, who has tried and tried and is a great young man, but he has been unable to find consistent accuracy, going back to the summer.
But Miles did say this: “Brandon, we’ve got to get him comfortable and settled down. I don’t know if that’ll happen. Depends on how the quarterback competition plays out.”
In other words, Etling will be starting and playing so much that Harris may not get a chance to get comfortable this season. Then again … if you watched the second half.
At any rate, as Etling, a junior transfer who played his way out of starting jobs at Purdue in 2013 and ’14, completed 6 of his first 8 passes in the second quarter for 100 yards, it was like a curse had been lifted from Death Valley. LSU fans’ spirits lifted to the sky as if someone had paid their season ticket licensing fees for the season.
Etling may not be great. He may only be average. He may just be a different version of the same thing. But he gives LSU fans craving just a decent passing game hope. And just last week, all hope seemed lost.
Etling seems less scattered than Harris. He seems like he knows what will be happening on each play. He looks more solid in the pocket. He is more accurate on the short and intermediate routes – something that LSU’s offense has been needing desperately. He completed three short passes to running backs and another one to a tight end, which are very simple plays that classify as exotic in these parts.
Etling made it look easy there in the second quarter as many quarterbacks do in games all over the country before and after infuriated LSU fans have watched their quarterbacks struggle frequently with the simplest of tasks over the years.
Playing quarterback in college is not nearly as hard as LSU has made it look. Suddenly, it looks like fans can watch LSU play football again without agonizing aggravation from this season’s disappointment at the position. Etling looked like an Alabama quarterback Saturday. Not a great talent. Not in a fancy spread attack. Just decent quarterbacking complementing the running game.
If Etling can improve on his second half and maintain some consistency, LSU may have a chance to get to double-digit wins or more. But at the moment, Etling going 6 of 8 with a touchdown and then 0 of 6 with a fumble and an interception is in microcosm what Harris was last season – up and down, up and down with flashes of very good play mixed with inaccuracies.
“He stepped in,” said LSU tailback Derrius Guice, who led all rushers with 155 yards on 19 carries in relief of starter Leonard Fournette. Fournette sat out with an ankle injury as a precaustion and is expected to play against Mississippi State.
“As a two like myself, you have to be ready to play when your name is called upon,” said Guice, who had a 44-yard run and an 18-yard catch. “He was relaxed. He was ready to play when his name got called, and I’m proud of him for that.”
Not that it means anything, but Etling does talk about the game more specifically and with more brevity and clarity than does Harris.
“To an extent, you just want to be a facilitator,” he said. “At times, you’re going to be asked to do more to win games. At times, you’re going to be asked to do what’s needed to win the game. That’s something you have to find out during the game.”
That explanation is the essence of the last three Alabama national champion quarterbacks from Jake Coker to A.J. McCarron and to Greg McElroy.
What did Etling learn from his time at Purdue? “How to prepare for games. How to be a college quarterback and try to act like a pro at times, and do your best for the team to win,” he said.
Were the passes to the backs and tight ends designed or check-downs? “It’s a mixture of both,” he said. “It’s a nice mixture of coach (offensive coordinator Cam Cameron) making some nice play calls and me going through my progressions.
What happened in the second half when you went 0-for-6? “Just missing throws here and there,” he said. “Would like to have a couple ones back. I wasn’t too down on many of my decisions. I’ve just got to make some better throws. I’m not too worried. I’ll bounce back next week.”
What did you see on the touchdown pass to Smith? “I was able to identify what defense they were in,” he said. “And I was able to narrow down my read to high-low. DeSean popped up, and I was able to give him the ball. It was pretty clear out there who was going to be open and what the defense was trying to do. There were some errant throws here and there. Wish I could have them back.”
How different a quarterback are you now compared to your two seasons at Purdue? “Worlds of difference,” he said. “I’m understanding where to look.”
HARRIS STORMS OFF: LSU quarterback Brandon Harris did not appear to be a happy man as the game ended Saturday following his benching in the second quarter. He rushed off the field before any of his teammates, skipped the traditional singing of the alma mater with Coach Miles and nearly beat the game officials to the locker room.
“I would expect a competition that both guys would understand, and that we would go forward from there,” Miles said.
Etling said he spoke to Harris throughout the game after replacing him. “He was very supportive of me during the game,” he said. “He is a great teammate and really wants to win, too.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I should probably thank Xavier for the penalty.”
… LSU quarterback Danny Etling on Donte Jackson’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter that was called back because of holding on Xavier Lewis just as Etling was about to enter the game. Six plays later, he threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to tight end DeSean Smith to give LSU a 6-3 lead.