BATON ROUGE — Danny Etling is 13-5 as LSU's starting quarterback with a 324-yard passing game in the Tigers' 54-39 win at No. 22 Texas A&M last season.
The last starting quarterback at LSU to win that many games and throw for 300 yards or more in a win was Zach Mettenberger in 2013.
But coach Ed Orgeron has said more than once that Etling has not led the Tigers to a signature win. LSU did beat No. 20 Florida and No. 11 Auburn this season, but Etling completed just 9 of 16 passes for 125 yards with a touchdown and 13 of 24 for 206 yards and a touchdown in those two games. Not exactly signature.
His chance is Saturday night. The No. 20 Tigers (6-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) play at No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) at 7 p.m. on CBS in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
"This is his test. He knows it," Orgeron said Monday. "But we've got to protect him."
Etling is No. 4 in the SEC in the all-encompassing passing efficiency statistic at 156.6 on 93-of-155 passing for 1,452 yards and nine touchdowns with just one interception despite a young and mostly average offensive line that has allowed 15 sacks and countless hurries and hits on Etling.
Alabama is fourth in the SEC with 23 sacks. The Crimson Tide is also No. 1 in the nation in total defense with 236 yards allowed a game, in rushing defense with 66.4 yards allowed a game and in scoring defense with 9.8 points allowed a game. The Tide is No. 6 nationally in pass efficiency defense with 11 interceptions and six touchdowns allowed and is No. 5 in third down conversion percentage allowed at 25 percent. Alabama cornerback Levi Wallace leads the SEC with 12 passes defensed on the season.
"First of all, Danny has to be very, very patient," Orgeron said. "He has to make the right throws, the right decisions in a big game."
Etling did not fare well against a similar Alabama defense last season in a big game at Tiger Stadium as he was 11-of-24 passing for 92 yards with an interception amid a season-high five sacks in a 10-0 loss. He also missed open receivers or did not see them in time.
"There were some throws last year that were wide open," Orgeron said. "He didn't make them. He realized that. And there times we didn't block very well for him."
For this Alabama game, though, Etling has a new back as he had surgery last spring after playing the 2016 season in pain and often unable to perform full passing motions. He also has a new offense under first-year coordinator Matt Canada, whose motion, shifts and jet sweeps have had some success.
"I know we have a better plan this year," Orgeron said. "I think that the offense is working very hard to protect Danny and get the throws out that we can get and run the ball when we can."
Etling, though, does not see his part in the Alabama game exactly the same way Orgeron does.
"Yeah, sure, I mean it'd be great to have a big night against any team," he said. "Really, what it is is just focusing on treating this game like it's any other game and trying to have the same preparation and not get too high or too low and stay even keel and try to continue to make the right decisions."
Etling is as concerned with what he does not do against Alabama, such as not throwing interceptions. His single one on the season is a major reason why his efficiency numbers are so good, and even that one was a desperation toss at the end of the loss to Troy.
"I think it's a big deal," Etling said when asked about not getting caught up in the name, Alabama. "Sometimes people can look at them and get intimidated or make it seem bigger than it really is. You can't really try and get too gassed up or anything like that and try to make something happen that's not there or try to play outside of what you're capable of doing. We've just got to make sure we go out there and play our game and keep improving as an offense as we have been."
LSU's offensive game will be different than what Alabama coach Nick Saban has seen in recent years from previous head coach Les Miles and former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Or are all the motions and shifts of Canada just eye candy?
"Without giving away anything, certainly this isn't a team you want to play in a phone booth," Etling said. "You want the best advantages in terms of numbers and personnel."
Canada, whose finesse game has tricked opponents in recent weeks during LSU's three-game winning streak, may also have a few tricks he has been hiding.
"Maybe, you'll just have to tune in and find out," Etling said. "We definitely want to play loose and have fun doing it."
Etling did not admit it at first, but he realizes this could be a watershed game for him as Orgeron said.
"It's my senior year," he said. "This is a great stage and a great time to be playing."
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