TAMPA, Fla. — Anthony Jennings became just the second quarterback in LSU history to get his first start in a bowl game.
Just like Matt Flynn in the 2005 Peach Bowl, Jennings got the victory.
But unlike Flynn, who garnered Most Valuable Player honors in that blowout win over Miami almost a decade ago, Jennings struggled in his debut as a starter.
Jennings, a freshman from Marietta, Ga., completed just 7 of 19 passes for 82 yards and threw a crucial interception in LSU’s 21-14 victory over Iowa on Wednesday in the Outback Bowl.
“The young quarterback, it was his first time out,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “He did some things that he would like to have back. But he managed the game and came away with a victory.”
It was Jennings’ first outing since his dazzling performance a little over a month ago when he rescued the Tigers in their regular-season finale against Arkansas. In that game, he came off the bench for injured starter Zach Mettenberger and led a last-minute, 99-yard game-winning drive. He completed four of six passes on the drive, including a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural with 1:15 left for a 31-27 victory.
Jennings wasn’t as solid this time around. He also was sacked four times.
“Any player can relate,” said LSU running back Jeremy Hill. “It has to be an emotional roller coaster, especially in a 60-minute football game. I think Anthony did a great job finishing the game, making the right checks at the line and clock management and not giving Iowa a chance to get back on the field.”
Jennings wasn’t made available for interviews after the game.
He was just the third true freshman to start in a bowl game, joining Herb Tyler (1995 Independence Bowl) and Jordan Jefferson (2008 Chick-fil-A Bowl).
Tyler completed 10 of 20 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown in 1995, a 45-26 win over Michigan State. Jefferson completed 16 of 25 passes for 142 yards, a 38-3 victory over Georgia Tech. Jefferson was also named MVP.
That honor Wednesday went to Hill, who led a rushing attack that helped take the load off Jennings. LSU rushed on its first eight plays of its opening drive, capped off by Jennings’ 2-yard run. The Tigers ran on their next four plays before Jennings threw his first pass, an incompletion.
“We cut the playbook down a little bit so Anthony could make all the right decisions and make the plays, and I thought he did a great job of managing the clock and getting the offense going,” LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said.
Jennings’ second pass was a perfectly thrown strike to Jarvis Landry for a 14-yard gain.
But it was his pass in the third quarter, with LSU leading 14-0, that gave Iowa life.
Iowa defensive back John Lowdermilk caught an overthrown ball by Jennings and raced 71 yards to set up the Hawkeyes’ first touchdown.
“He was tight as heck,” Miles said. “This was his first interception of note, and he came to the sidelines just sick. He has to drop it. It’s the middle of the game. There were some lessons that he learned that will benefit him as he goes forward.”
While his numbers weren’t solid, his ability to lead was, fullback Connor Neighbors said.
“It’s hard for someone like that to step in and lead a team,” said Neighbors. “But every time we were in a huddle, he’d tell us to shut up, because we’d be jawing, but he’d take control of the team and lead us to victory, and that is all that matters.”
Jennings will enter the spring in what should be a hotly contested quarterback race for a team that will be looking to replace Mettenberger. Freshman Hayden Rettig and Stephen Rivers, the brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillp Rivers, also return. But the biggest challenge to Jennings could come from Brandon Harris, a standout at Parkway High who will enroll in January.
Hill, who rushed 28 times for 216 yards and two TDs, thinks Jennings will be just fine.
“He handled it great,” Hill said. “He approaches every week the same, as if he was a starter. He came to LSU, just like every guy comes to LSU, for his number to be called on. He did a great job managing the game. Of course, he would like to have that turnover back, but for the most part he managed the game and kept us in a winning situation. I think this will jump-start him for next year.”