BATON ROUGE, La. — Preparing to face Alabama’s defense for the first time is a bit like sitting down to eat Cajun cooking for the first time. You know the heat is coming. The question is whether you’ll be able to handle it.
Indiana native Danny Etling has had over a year to adjust his palate since transferring to LSU from Purdue, but the biggest adjustment he will ever have to make on the football field comes this Saturday when the 15th-ranked Tigers face the No. 1 Crimson Tide and the nation’s most dangerous D.
“It might be one of the best defenses in college football history,” said LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron, who isn’t necessarily prone to hyperbole. “We’ll see at the end of the year.”
It all starts with the nation’s best pass rush.
Alabama leads all teams with 32 sacks, an average of four per game. Seven different players have at least two sacks. The danger lurks everywhere.
“When you watch the film, they do a good job getting pressure with their four down linemen,” Etling said. “It’s tough to make those throws when you’re getting hit and they still have a lot of guys covering back there.”
When the Crimson Tide aren’t getting sacks, they’re causing enough pressure to force turnovers. Alabama’s defense has scored an improbable nine touchdowns this year — more than half as many as South Carolina’s offense has scored (17).
“You never want to turn the football over. Make sure you protect the football,” Etling said. “That’s something we’ll be highlighting a lot in practice. You want to play your game still. Be aggressive, but don’t be reckless.”
For Etling, that means keeping his timing with his receivers in sync even though the temptation will be strong to make the clock in his head tick a second quicker.
“You want to make sure (the clock in your head) stays the same,” Etling said. “Sometimes, when you get hit a lot, you think you’ve got to speed it up and get it out quicker to beat it. But you want to make sure you have the same timing with your receivers.”
That means Etling’s full faith will be in his offensive line, which will be back in its originally envisioned form for the first time since the season opener with the return of starting right tackle Toby Weathersby.
Though he knows Alabama’s front is too talented for the pocket to stay clean all game, Etling is confident the Tigers can minimize the damage better than other opponents have.
“When you play someone this talented they’re going to make plays,” Etling said. “You trust your offensive line. If something breaks down, you go and react to it and try and make a play or try and minimize the damage as much as you can.”
Though Etling has never played an opponent the caliber of the 2016 Crimson Tide, his career has prepared him for defensive pressure like this. In 13 starts at Purdue as a freshman and sophomore, Etling was sacked 38 times.
The beatings were relentless, but so was the value of the lessons he learned.
“At Purdue it was a process, especially my freshman year,” Etling said. “I didn’t necessarily do a great job of it. Then my sophomore year came and I learned to manage it somewhat better, but still not great.”
It took a year away from the non-stop carnage on LSU’s scout team to finally figure it out.
“I think the year off taught me a lot,” Etling said. “And as I’ve been playing this year, I’ve felt a lot more confidence when I’ve gotten hits. Just shake it off. It’s going to happen every once in awhile.”
Against Alabama’s defense, Orgeron guarantees it will happen.
“He’s going to get hit,” Orgeron said. “He’s probably going to get sacked once or twice.”
But as they say, it’s not how many times you get knocked down. It’s how many times you pick yourself up.
“He needs to take care of that football, set his jaw, come back and play again,” Orgeron said. “Manage the game. Call the plays. Do the things that coach asks him to do.”