Last week, LSU junior quarterback Danny Etling gave the Tigers’ offense a much-needed spark off the bench.
Can he do the same thing as a starter?
LSU fans are almost assuredly going to find out sometime between now and the end of the weekend.
The Tigers will take on Mississippi State in Death Valley – a conference-opening tilt that is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Saturday night and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2.
LSU coach Les Miles said he would not name a starting quarterback before Saturday night’s game. But in a true “Les-ism,” the coach then showed his hand with words that heavily imply that the Purdue transfer will be on the field for the Tigers when they battle the Bulldogs.
“I can’t imagine that Danny Etling would not take the first snaps (Saturday),” Miles said at his SEC teleconference. “…And we think he’s going to do a fine job leading our team.”
In Etling, LSU is playing a guy who has tons of starters experience in major-conference college football.
At Purdue, Etling started for parts of two seasons, passing for 2,490 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his time with the team.
He transferred following the 2014 season, then sat out 2015, per the NCAA’s transfer rules.
He didn’t play in LSU’s season-opening loss against Wisconsin, but then got thrown into the fire last Saturday after Harris started and failed to lead LSU to a first down in the first quarter against Jacksonville State.
Etling didn’t need much time to get settled in, helping lead LSU to 27 points in the second quarter en route to a 34-13 win over the Gamecocks.
After the game, Miles said Harris needed to calm his nerves, but added he may not get the opportunity to do that on the field because of Etling’s play.
“Danny’s a guy who can lead an offense,” Miles said. “He can take a team down the field.”
Against Mississippi State, the new-look LSU offense will be challenged stiffly.
The Bulldogs have allowed just 311.1 yards per game so far in 2016 – a number that trumps many in the SEC (including LSU).
J.T. Gray, Richie Brown and A.J. Jefferson do a lot of damage for the group, which has recorded 22 stops for loss in the young season.
Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said his team is focused on itself and not LSU’s quarterback carousel in advance of Saturday’s game.
The Tigers are also expected to regain the services of halfback Leonard Fournette on Saturday after he rested last weekend against the Gamecocks to heal a bum ankle.
“We’ve got to pressure (whoever LSU’s quarterback is),” Mullen said at his SEC teleconference. “We have to get after it – no matter who is back there. It really doesn’t much matter.”
The same can be said for LSU.
They, too, will be facing a team that’s used two quarterbacks in the young season.
Replacing Dak Prescott has proven tough for the Bulldogs so far in 2016, and the team has started a different quarterback in each game this season.
In the opener, the Bulldogs rode Damian Williams – a Louisiana native.
He struggled, and the team lost to South Alabama.
Last week in a 28-14 win over South Carolina, Mullen didn’t use Williams at all, and instead turned to Nick Fitzgerald. He repaid his coach’s loyalty by completing 19-fo-29 passes for 178 yards. He also rushed for 195 yards, including a 74-yard big hitter.
Mullen said the plan is to start Fitzgerald again on Saturday and hope for the best as he faces the fans in Death Valley for the first time.
“I’m sure he will make some mistakes on Saturday night down there, but hopefully the mistakes he makes, he corrects,” Mullen said. “You are going to make mistakes, but let’s respond from it and come back and not make the same mistake again.”
The game will be the start of the SEC schedule for LSU, and the Tigers will wear gold-colored jersey tops in the game as part of a throwback weekend Nike is promoting around the country.
LSU offense v. Mississippi State defense
Advantage: Mississippi State
Danny Etling looks like a steadier solution at quarterback than Harris ever was, but let’s see a little more before we get into too much of a frenzy. The Bulldogs are stout defensively, and this will be no easy challenge.
LSU defense v. Mississippi State offense
The Bulldogs struggle to throw the ball down the field, and if LSU keeps the quarterback – whichever one is in the game – from making plays with his feet, Mississippi State should be hamstrung offensively.
After looking dreadful at Wisconsin, the LSU special teams group had a dominant showing against Jacksonville State. If the Tigers can keep that level of play up, they can routinely win the game’s third phase.
LSU 28, Mississippi State 17
Photo by Sean Gasser.