The entire off-season, LSU coach Les Miles continued to stress one thing: The Tigers were going to air it out this year.
It was a promise that excited LSU fans who had spent the past three seasons watching an offense rank in the bottom 25 in the nation in passing and struggle to reach 200 yards through the air each week.
It was also a pledge the Tigers failed to fulfill through the first eight weeks of the season, as they were on pace for statistically the second-worst passing year in Miles’ tenure behind 2010’s dreadful passing production.
But Saturday, against what was easily LSU’s stiffest challenge in top-ranked Alabama, the offense came to life in a way Tiger Stadium hadn’t seen in quite some time. Junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who, entering the season was lauded as the savior of the struggling Tiger offense, finally lived up to his “Mett-siah” moniker by completing 24 of his 35 pass attempts and racking up 298 yards through the air against a defense that had surrendered just 145.9 passing yards per game.
He added a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry in the fourth quarter — just the fourth score the Tide defense had allowed through the air this season — to cap off a performance Mettenberger knew they were capable of all season.
“That’s stuff that offensively, we’ve seen since spring,” Mettenberger said. “It’s just taken awhile for us to get to that level, I guess. When it came down to it, we just came out there and executed the best we have all year. All 11 guys more times than not were doing the right thing every time. That’s something that we should have had all year.”
Before the Alabama game, Mettenberger had thrown for 200 yards just twice this season and was coming off his lowest output of the year, a 97-yard performance against Texas A&M.
With two weeks to soak in the criticism from all around, Mettenberger came just two yards shy of being LSU’s first 300-yard passer since Matt Flynn threw for 353 on Nov. 3, 2007, ironically against the Tide.
“I think fans and media needed that type of game from me to have confidence in me,” Mettenberger said. “I’m always going to be confident in my ability. I’ve always known that I can play this game, and it’s just good to have that game under my belt though, for sure. A performance like that is great, but it’s not going to mean anything if I go out against Mississippi State and lay an egg. Fans and media are going to be breathing down my neck again.”
Mettenberger has been the center of media attention for quite some time now, from his dismissal at Georgia three years ago to his savior status in Baton Rouge three months ago.
But when the lights were the brightest, and all eyes were on him for the right reasons, Mettenberger was quick to pass the credit to others, whether it be the young weapons around him or the big men in front of him.
“It’s amazing when everybody does the right job,” Mettenberger said. “You really get a rhythm going, and it’s contagious. Everybody on the offense starts feeling it. And when things start clicking and rolling, it’s tough to stop any offense. I think we got the breaks we needed and got a good rhythm.”
All the pieces seemed to come together in the right way for the Tigers on Saturday. The offensive line finally found the right combination, using the same five starters the past three games. And the wide receivers limited the number of dropped passes in the game — a problem that plagued them at the start of the season.
“There were still a few dropped balls, myself included,” Landry said. “They were mistakes that weren’t overwhelming, and for the most part when we got opportunities, we took advantage of them. It’s just us stepping up and making plays when we need to with the opportunities that we have.”
LSU’s next challenge isn’t quite the stiff Alabama squad it faced a week ago, but Mississippi State is certainly no pushover.
The Bulldogs rank No. 8 in the conference, giving up 209.7 pass yards per game, slightly above the 190.6 yards per game LSU produces.
The Tigers are looking to carry Saturday’s performance over not only to this weekend, but for the rest of the season and into the future. Three of the five starting offensive linemen are underclassmen, and both of LSU’s top two receivers this season are sophomores, building a strong foundation for what Miles hopes is a bright future.
“I think we’re youthful, I think we’re talented, I think we’re coming, and I think we’ll get better and better,” Miles said. “I like our quarterback’s play, I like our receivers’ play. Offensively, there’s a great long-term view.”