With halfback Leonard Fournette on the shelf with a leg injury and quarterback Brandon Harris still scuffling, the LSU offense was in a bind early on Saturday against Jacksonville State.
But a quick change at quarterback gave the Tigers the spark they needed to outlast their overmatched foe and earn their first win of the season.
Midway through the first half, Miles benched Harris and turned to backup Danny Etling – a Purdue transfer with starting experience.
Etling thrived – at least early on. He sparked the Tigers to 27 second-quarter points en route to a comfortable 34-13 win.
The quarterback finished the game 6-of-14 passing with 100 yards and a touchdown. He started red-hot, then missed his final seven passes of the game.
But perhaps more important than the stats is the body language shift in the Tigers after Etling’s arrival in the lineup.
Tiger Stadium came to life after the quarterback got the call – a fresh start after a rocky start to Saturday’s game, which was delayed an hour by lightning.
“Just like every game, I prepared like I was going to play. I got an opportunity there,” Etling said. “The coaches decided to give me the nod. I just tried to go out and make the most of it.”
Etling’s opportunity to shine came after Harris’ star faded on Tiger Stadium’s soggy turf.
Harris struggled mightily in the first quarter of Saturday night’s game – again overthrowing open receivers down the field.
In two drives, Harris was 1-of-4 for 8 yards. The Tigers didn’t get a first down in either drive, exiting the field to a chorus of boos – a streak of anemic possessions, which allowed the Gamecocks to score first and take a 3-0 lead.
But then Etling saved the day.
With the new quarterback at the controls, LSU shined, scoring touchdowns on three-straight drives to go ahead 20-10.
The first was a 46-yard strike from Etling to tight end DeSean Smith – a throw which was dead on the money.
The other two were runs – a 4-yard scamper by Derrius Guice (19 carries, 155 yards) and a 2-yard run by Bry’Kiethon Mouton.
Just before half, LSU’s special teams pitched in, as well, when Tre’Davious White took a punt 60 yards to the house to put the Tigers on top 27-10.
LSU coach Les Miles said the spurt was what the Tigers needed.
The coach said all phases of LSU’s offense were better in Saturday’s win.
“We threw the ball a little bit more efficient,” Miles said. “We ran the ball without issues. Offensively, we were better.”
But the Tigers’ defense wasn’t half bad, either.
After giving up some early yards in the first half, LSU mostly stymied the Gamecocks’ powerful offense, using dominant play in the trenches to keep the offense mostly out of sync.
Jacksonville State got 76 yards on a single play in the first half – a slant from quarterback Eli Jenkins to Krenwick Sanders, which was misplayed by LSU’s secondary.
But after that, the Tigers bent a little at times, but never broke, keeping Jenkins under 50 percent completions and holding the Gamecocks’ offense out the end zone.
Gamecocks coach John Grass said he was pleased with how his team played, touting that the Tigers are one of the best teams in the country in his eyes.
“We gave up too many explosive plays,” Grass said after the game. “But I was proud of our guys. The main thing is we matched their physicality and kept fighting for four quarters.”
But the big story was Etling’s play, and perhaps more importantly, what it means for the future.
ESPN reporters asked Miles after the game if Etling would start next Saturday against Mississippi State, and the coach was non-committal, saying that a lot can happen before next weekend’s game.
He elaborated in his post-game news conference, and said LSU will play the best player for the job.
On Saturday night, at least, it was Etling, and he powered the Tigers to victory.
“That was his first playing time. He certainly performed well to a point,” Miles said of Etling. “I think Brandon has to get comfortable and settle down and get in the flow.
“I don’t know that that’ll happen. It just kind of depends on how that quarterback competition plays out.”