John Battle noticed.
Danny Etling and DJ Chark, after each practice this week, worked on their exchange. They always spent time post-practice doing so, but this week was different. They stayed longer, well after the sun had set. Battle, LSU’s starting safety, was right there watching.
As a team, LSU rebounded from last week's loss at top-ranked Alabama by thumping reeling Arkansas 33-10 on Saturday. As a duo, Etling and Chark bounced back after a handful of misfires in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, by hooking up four times — twice for long-ball touchdowns.
Those successes were borne in practice. There was the post-and-go route, when Chark fakes to the inside and zips straight down the field. There was the straight go, when Chark jets down the sideline.
They were nearly identical to the missed connections between the two players in last week’s loss at top-ranked Alabama. The one difference: these were completed.
“Whenever something else, a new problem, presents itself, we try to work on it,” Chark said. “All the deep passes, we worked on. We worked on it before the game too. It was able to show today.”
Everyone noticed Saturday — not just Battle.
Etling and Chark connected on scores of 45 and 68 yards — first on the post-and-go and next on the straight go — and the Tigers overcame a sleepy opening half in the first morning kickoff in Tiger Stadium in six years.
Etling did not attend post-game interviews as trainers tended to him for minor bumps and bruises. What’d he miss? His teammates gloating about their fifth-year senior quarterback after a week in which some media members and fans called for a change at the position.
"I tried to be by his side all week,” Chark said. “He gets a lot of criticism that he doesn’t deserve.”
Said tight end Foster Moreau: “He made plays today.”
Etling finished 11 of 16 for 217 yards, with those two scoring bombs to Chark and a 14th victory in 20 games as LSU’s starter. Running back Derrius Guice scored three touchdowns and ran for 147 yards, too. Linebacker Devin White and his defense swallowed Arkansas and quarterback Austin Allen for much of the day, holding the Razorbacks and embattled coach Bret Bielema to 318 yards.
The Hogs (4-5, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) had just two drives of more than 30 yards, and the Tigers (7-3, 4-2) blew off a sluggish start — it was tied at 7 at halftime — by scoring on their first three second-half possessions.
Now, it’s on to Tennessee. The Tigers travel to face another struggling SEC opponent and embattled coach next Saturday.
They’ll savor this one until Monday, especially under the circumstances: Kicker Connor Culp missed two extra points and a 32-yard field goal, this was just the 12th home kickoff at or before noon since at least 1958 and it all came after a physical loss to the Tide.
Coach Ed Orgeron’s Tigers have now shaken off two defeats to Bama by outscoring the Hogs 71-20. Before that, LSU lost two straight to Arkansas in a series that’s been tight for more than a decade.
“We had to bounce back and not have a hangover like we did the past couple of years,” Orgeron said. “We knew it was going to be a struggle. After the first quarter, I thought, ‘(Arkansas) came to play.’”
Give credit to Etling for that 26-point second-half outburst.
He completed his first four passes of the third quarter, then provided the dagger on the first play of the fourth quarter, dropping a perfectly placed ball to an open Chark for that 68-yard touchdown.
The Razorbacks brought a blitz on that one. Moreau helped pick it up and then leaned close to Etling, his good friend and roommate.
“I draped my arm over him,” Moreau said. “I tapped him on the chest as the ball was going into DJ’s hands. You can tell — it was a great throw. I said, ‘Hey, congrats, man!’ ”
In the face of criticism this week — fans and some media members clamored for freshman Myles Brennan to replace Etling — this team rallied behind their quarterback.
“He sacrifices his body for us,” said receiver Stephen Sullivan, who had a career-best two catches, both for 20 yards. “I appreciate everything he does for us.”
Afterward, Orgeron revealed just how short the leash on Etling is. The quarterback missed a handful of throws in the first half — none bigger than a high toss toward Moreau on an incompletion that could have been a score.
“I thought he was good and we stayed with him. I want Danny to know I’ve got confidence in him. I didn’t want to do that,” Orgeron said. “Danny has bled purple and gold. I wanted to give him a chance. In the third quarter, if he wouldn’t have performed like he would, we would have pulled him. I wanted to give him a chance.”
Etling took the chance and carved up one of the SEC’s worst defenses, hitting on the deep balls that he and Chark missed last week in Tuscaloosa. The two failed to connect on four deep pass attempts in the loss to Bama.
It wasn’t all perfect this Saturday, either.
They missed once. The result: a first down. Chark was interfered with during the route. The flag came out as the ball sailed over his head for an incompletion, a rarity this week — at practice, during pregame warmups and in the game, of course.
Battle was witness to it all, including the social-media chatter about Etling’s status through the week.
“We see it. It’s all noise,” he said. “We control what we control in our locker room. We don’t let too much on the outside influence us. (Etling) did it last year. He was in a different position last year with Brandon (Harris). That’s just the quarterback cycle here. Got to block out the noise.”