BATON ROUGE – What a difference a quarterback change can sometimes make.
Like a breath of fresh air, LSU junior transfer Danny Etling replaced an “uncomfortable” Brandon Harris at quarterback last week and immediately completed six of his first eight passes with a 46-yard touchdown toss and two other touchdown drives to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 34-13 win.
And suddenly, the No. 22 Tigers (1-1) and their fans have virtually a brand new season and a refreshing new outlook entering Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi State (1-1, 1-0 SEC) at 6 p.m. on ESPN2 in Tiger Stadium.
Here are four other viewing recommendations when you are not looking at the first one - No. 16 Danny Etling.
1.LSU STARTING QUARTERBACK DANNY ETLING: He may not be the greatest, but he did look comfortable and – so far – better than Harris at checking to other plays and going through the progressions of looking at multiple receivers, which is how that 46-yard TD to tight end DeSean Smith happened. Getting his first start against a team that is not very good overall and pretty bad in the secondary will be his next step before heading off to Auburn.
Harris’ first career start, on the other hand, was at Auburn in 2014, and it was a disaster. He was not prepared, which was the fault of head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron more so than his. Hopefully, Cameron will call more low risk passes and screens to the running backs, which worked well last week and has been strangely missing from LSU’s offense for years even before Harris, who has had trouble with touch and accuracy.
2.LSU TAILBACK LEONARD FOURNETTE: Word is his mild, low ankle sprain is better than it was going into the Wisconsin game. Look for him to have a breakout game of 175 yards or so and, HOPEFULLY, they will throw Fournette and backup tailback Derrius Guice the ball. Guice did look great last week, but Fournette is the man. He will get most of the carries. Mississippi State is No. 2 in the SEC and No. 10 nationally against the run, but do not be deceived. The Bulldogs have not played against a good running team yet. LSU will be able to run and will run a lot.
3.MISSISSIPPI STATE SECONDARY: The Bulldogs are No. 12 in the 14-team SEC in pass defense efficiency and 83rd nationally with a 132.3 rating, so that bodes well for Etling. So does the fact that State lost both starting cornerbacks in August. Returning senior Tolando Cleveland is out for the year with a knee injury, and projected senior starter Cedric Jiles is out until mid-October with an arm injury. Junior college transfer junior Lashard Durr and converted junior wide receiver Jamoral Graham are starting now, and not doing so well. Sophomore Jamal Peters, a sophomore backup safety, has moved to cornerback to help out. South Alabama true freshman quarterback Dallas Davis completed 24 of 34 for 285 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start two weeks ago in a 21-20 upset of the Bulldogs, who were favored by four touchdowns.
4.MISSISSIPPI STATE QUARTERBACK NICK FITZGERALD: He proved to be a very good runner in the Bulldogs’ 27-14 win over South Carolina last week as he set a school record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 195. But he is still green as a passer. LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White and company should have some opportunities for interceptions.
5.LSU QUARTERBACK BRANDON HARRIS: If everything goes just OK for Etling and he is not injured, Harris likely will not play. Harris’ hurried exit from the field after the game last week and his, “You smart” tweet to recent LSU transfer wide receiver Tyron Johnson were mistakes, but give him some slack. They were not that bad and were understandable. He thought he would be LSU’s starting quarterback for three years. In the end, he may have lost his job in much the same way that the quarterback he replaced last August – Anthony Jennings – lost his. It’s part of the game. Stay engaged on the sidelines and in practice, Brandon, and you may get another shot.
PREDICTION: So far, these are two teams near the bottom of the SEC. But LSU looks better. Jacksonville State, which has been LSU’s only victim, could probably beat both of State’s opponents so far. LSU’s defense will have much less trouble with Mississippi State’s offense than the other way around. State's best running back - senior Brandon Holloway - weighs just 165 pounds, and he frequently runs inside. Say hello to LSU nose guard Travonte Valentine, who has you by 200.
LSU 24, Mississippi State 10.
LAST WEEK’S PREDICTION: LSU 34, Jacksonville State 13.
LAST WEEK’S FINAL SCORE: LSU 34, Jacksonville State 13.
SEASON RECORD: 1-0. TOTAL POINT DIFFERENTIAL: 0.
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