BATON ROUGE – When LSU returned from its last road trip it had an uncomfortable quarterback, an injured tailback and a coach in trouble.
The No. 22 Tigers will go on their next road with new and comfortable quarterback Danny Etling, healthy tailback Leonard Fournette and hopeful coach Les Miles to play Auburn on ESPN.
In his first start as an LSU quarterback, Etling completed 19 of 30 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown in the Tigers’ 23-20 victory in front of 85,000 at Tiger Stadium Saturday night that got a little shaky at the end.
Fournette shook off a minor ankle bruise to gain 147 yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns while catching four passes for 27 yards. The Tigers dominated the game until the final minutes as it blew a 23-6 lead over the final 4:10 as Fournette fumbled twice to help State make a game of it.
"If we hold onto the ball, we walk out of there without there being any question," LSU coach Les Miles said. "But with an onside kick and two fumbles, they get back in the game. It should not have happened."
Much like last Saturday when he came off the bench to direct a 34-13 victory over Jacksonville State, Etling wasted little time in providing results for a passing-game starved program and fan base. On his third pass of the game on a third and nine, Etling found struggling wide receiver Malachi Dupre, and this time Dupre held on for a 15-yard gain. Dupre finished with four catches for 54 yards.
Four plays later, Etling connected with wide receiver D.J. Chark for a 37-yard touchdown to give LSU a 7-0 lead with 9:28 to play in the opening period. Etling hit Chark in stride deep in the end zone, and Chark did a masterful job of keeping his feet in bounds for the first touchdown reception of his career.
Fournette made it 14-0 with 35 seconds to go in the first quarter on a 5-yard touchdown run. He had 38 yards on seven carries in the opening period, but was just getting warmed up. The junior from New Orleans made it 20-0 midway in the second quarter on a 25-yard touchdown. He finished the half with 113 yards on 20 carries.
Colby Delahoussaye had the extra point blocked after that touchdown. After State drew within 20-3 on a 41-yard field goal by Westin Graves, Delahoussaye hit a 27-yard field goal with seven seconds to go before halftime for a 23-3 lead at the half. LSU outgained State, 282-80, in the first half, but went cold in the second half.
After State cut LSU's lead to 23-6 on a 37-yard field goal by Graves with 6:41 to go in the third quarter, the Tigers had good field position at their 45-yard line and faced a first down and five yards to go following an offside penalty against the Bulldogs. Fournette gained six yards on the next play for a first down, but he fumbled it to State linebacker Gerri Greene.
LSU was still up 23-6 under the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter when Fournette fumbled again at the Mississippi State 34-yard line when it appeared the Tigers were going in to take a 30-6 lead after moving 65 yards in 13 plays. Instead, State moved 66 yards in nine plays to get within 23-13 with 4:10 to go. Backup quarterback Damian Williams of Metairie replaced starter Nick Fitzgerald on the drive and completed a 27-yard pass to wide receiver Fred Ross to the LSU 3-yard line. Two plays later, Williams scored from three yards out.
Dez Harris then recovered an onside kick at the LSU 32-yard line with 4:05 to play. Williams hit Ross again for 25 yards, then hit Ross on a 7-yard touchdown pass to cut LSU's lead to 23-20 with 3:30 to go.
Etling failed to move the Tigers, and State got the ball back after a three-and-out punt at its 23-yard line with 2:15 to play. After a 2-yard rush and two incompletions by Williams, LSU defensive end Arden Key sealed the victory with a fourth down sack of Williams for a 12-yard loss. Williams fumbled on the play with defensive tackle Davon Godchaux recovering at the State 17-yard line.
LSU ran out the clock, and it was over.
"He's one of the most ball secure runners I've ever had," Miles said. "But he needs a refresher course."
That appears to be less of a problem than what LSU was facing just two weeks ago.