Tiger Stadium was in a first-class funk.
It never rains in Tiger Stadium? How about “It always rains in Tiger Stadium?” Especially for the season opener.
For a time Saturday night the hours leading up to LSU’s home opener against Jacksonville State played out like an unwelcome replay of last year’s season opener against McNeese State. That night a thunderstorm that parked its gray fanny over Tiger Stadium and wouldn’t budge until the game was canceled, the first LSU game wiped off the books since the days of the Red Baron and Doughboys in World War I.
Then there was the way the game started for the Tigers.
LSU didn’t need Leonard Fournette.
The gray skies finally gave way, but the gray mood of Tiger fans watching their team only grew darker. LSU sputtered through a clunky first quarter reminiscent of their entire game against Wisconsin as LSU’s Brandon Harris-led, Leonard Fournette-less offense suffered through stalemate after stalemate with the Jacksonville State defense. With each punt and incomplete pass the boos grew louder, the natives growing more anxious to see their once No. 5-ranked Tigers mount some semblance of an offensive attack.
At the end of the first quarter LSU had no points, not even a first down. Finally, after Jacksonville State broke in front with a field goal to start the second quarter, Les Miles had no more patience for his experienced but inaccurate junior quarterback.
Enter junior backup Danny Etling. The reaction from a soggy, surly and two-thirds full Tiger Stadium must have been what it was like when LSU fans came in 1931 and saw Saturday night in Tiger Stadium for the first time.
It was as though someone flipped a switch on Death Valley. And it was Etling who sang the stadium electric.
His first pass arced up the LSU sideline intended for tight end Colin Jeter (yes, the Tigers have those, too). It fell incomplete, not because it was a bad pass but because Jacksonville State linebacker Joel McCandless was there to break it up. The delivery was spot on.
Five plays later, Etling wouldn’t be denied. He lobbed another well-targeted pass again up the sideline for DeSean Smith (another LSU tight end!) for a 46-yard touchdown pass and run that gave the Tigers the lead.
Another drive after that another LSU touchdown, this a 4-yard run by Derrius Guice. And on the next drive, a 2-yard touchdown rumble by fullback Bry’Kiethon Mouton, a score set up by a deft 15-yard screen pass from Etling to Guice. A brilliant 60-yard punt return touchdown by Tre’Davious White that actually covered about 85 yards gave LSU a 27-10 halftime lead and put the Tigers en route to a much needed 34-13 victory over the FCS-level Gamecocks.
What, haven’t seen much of the screen pass from LSU lately? Unfortunately for the Tigers, it wasn’t because it wasn’t in the playbook, it’s because Harris couldn’t make the throws effectively.
Etling proved correct the book on him that leaked out from behind LSU’s wooden curtain surrounding its football practice complex: in him the Tigers have a quarterback who may not have quite the arm strength of Harris, but an accurate pocket passer who can run … LSU’s … offense.
Now certainly there are a few LSU fans out there banging their heads over why Miles stuck with Harris through what may prove to be a national championship-killing loss last week to Wisconsin. One can only say with Miles experience counts for a lot and Harris, painful and potentially costly as it was, had to be allowed to play himself out of a starting role.
Etling wasn’t perfect, gambling a bit too much on a long pass for Malachi Dupre in the end zone to start the third quarter that was picked off in the end zone. He fumbled later when trying to pass, the turnovers sandwiched around a 2-yard keeper for a touchdown. But one quarterback’s folly is another quarterback’s daring do. Harris would have been booed off the field for taking and failing at such a risk as the interception, but Etling was quickly forgiven given his brief track record — that and the three-and-out forced by LSU’s defense after the pick.
The spark Etling gave LSU’s offense was unmistakable, and even though Miles was noncommittal about Etling starting against Mississippi State the path forward for the Tigers’ offense appears clear.
“Danny can run a team,” Miles told ESPN afterward. “He can make some plays. We’ll look at the mistakes that were made and learn from it.”
Assuming Miles sticks with him, how far can Etling help carry the Tigers, especially after Fournette returns from his ankle injury? Is it a one-game phenomenon or something with lasting power for LSU overall?
Too early to call. But on this one particular Saturday night, one critical move parted the clouds over Tiger Stadium.
The clouds parted, LSU notched a much-needed win and the Golden Band from Tiger Land lent a …