There was solid logic behind preseason optimism for then-No. 5 LSU: With Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette in the backfield, two home run receivers and a half-dozen projected NFL draft picks on defense, if Brandon Harris could become merely a competent passer, the Tigers would be special this fall.
But Harris couldn’t, as Wisconsin exposed in Week 1, and the possibility of wasting yet another talent-rich roster was suddenly all too real. Then Les Miles (rightly) pushed the panic button early in LSU’s second game. Enter Danny Etling, competent passer.
After an intriguing debut off the bench against Jacksonville State, Etling’s first start was even more encouraging Saturday night against Mississippi State: 19 of 30 for 215 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Dazzling? No. Competent? Utterly.
Remember when we thought that’s all this LSU team needed to contend for an SEC championship?
The Purdue transfer, who threw for 2,490 yards, produced 20 total touchdowns and threw 12 interceptions in 13 games during two season for the Boilermakers, hardly looks like a savior. But he does look like a guy who can hit an open receiver and occasionally connect down the field and maybe, just maybe, take a little attention off Fournette.
The Tigers’ star running back, in his return from a nagging ankle injury, produced 178 total yards and two touchdowns Saturday, thanks in part to the threat of Etling’s arm. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior, once a top-10 quarterback recruit nationally, dropped a dime right out of the gate against the Bulldogs.
His 37-yard touchdown toss to D.J. Chark in the first quarter could not have been better: in stride, over the defender’s head and the receiver’s shoulder, dropping into his target’s arms just before he stepped out of the back of the end zone. That was a third-down throw, where Etling excelled.
He started the game 6 of 7 for 100 yards on third down, picking up five first downs. Quick decisions, good timing, soft touch. These are the trademarks of a competent passer, which LSU desperately needed and Harris simply couldn’t give them.
Etling might not ultimately be the answer either, could prove to have been but a Band-Aid on a much larger problem. We’ll find out soon enough, as the Tigers’ next three games (two on the road) are against Auburn, Missouri and Florida – who’ve allowed a combined six touchdown passes against 10 interceptions so far.
But in Etling’s competency to this point, LSU has found reason to hope again that the rest of its immense talent will not be for naught.