Danny Etling told his parents to pull off the interstate.
He needed to watch — not just listen to — LSU’s No. 1-vs-No. 2 clash with Alabama in 2011.
“Game of the Century,” Etling said, referring to the moniker slapped on that duel in Tuscaloosa.
The Etlings were somewhere on Interstate 39, trekking the five hours back to Terre Haute, Indiana, from their son’s recruiting visit to Wisconsin. Danny encouraged them to exit so the then-high school junior quarterback could see the end of the top-ranked Tigers’ 9-6 overtime win.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got to watch this game.’ I don’t remember where I stopped,” Etling said. “Stopped at a place to eat, and we just kind of watched the end of the game. It was 6-6. I was like, ‘Oh, I need to watch it.’ ”
In less than a week, Etling will be in it: LSU vs. Alabama. It’s one of the most intense, talent-filled and hard-hitting yearly duels in college football. He’s one of the new characters in this production, a rookie in an event that has produced some rousing performances by the game’s biggest stars.
He’s one of the more unexpected participants in this rivalry duel, a series he has watched for the past half-decade. Three years ago, Etling was a benched former starter at Purdue, and he entered this season as a backup to starter Brandon Harris.
Here he is now, leading the 15th-ranked Tigers (5-2, 3-1 Southeastern) to record-breaking offensive numbers in their first three games of this “new season” under interim coach Ed Orgeron. He's even got teammates like guard Will Clapp calling Etling a "game-changer" at the position.
“It’s safe to say that, a year or two ago, I wouldn’t have thought that this would happen,” Etling said. “Kind of rolling with the flow of everything and enjoying it when it happens.”
The Indiana native is set to be LSU’s sixth starting quarterback in its past seven games against Alabama (8-0, 5-0) when the two meet at 7 p.m. Saturday. The other five haven’t fared so well. That list: Jarrett Lee (2011), Jordan Jefferson (2011), Zach Mettenberger (2012 and 2013), Anthony Jennings (2014) and Harris (2015).
In the past five games against the Tide, that group completed 53.3 percent of their passes and got sacked 15 times. They averaged 136.6 yards passing per game, and just one of them has passed for more than 130 yards against Bama in a game: Mettenberger with 298 in 2012 and 241 in 2013.
Facing coach Nick Saban’s defensive front is a tortuous experience for any QB. Preparing a player like Etling — a Midwestern kid who has primarily played against Big Ten fronts — is no easy chore. So how do you do it?
“Run him through a meat grinder or something,” Orgeron joked last week. “We have to put pressure on the quarterback (in practice). We have to make him throw off his back foot. Now, he’s not live. We do all of the things Alabama does, but we do it full speed. We match up pretty good. We’re not like them, but our guys are pretty good also.”
Etling began watching film of Bama last Monday, two days after the Tigers' victory over Ole Miss and the start of LSU’s off week. Scheme-wise, he sees similarities to Auburn, mostly because of the influence of Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, LSU’s former defensive coordinator who worked with Saban at Bama.
Talent-wise, he has faced just one team to which he can compare the Tide: Ohio State.
“Their talent jumped off the tape,” Etling said of the Buckeyes. “When you go play them, the speed and depth and physicality of it is so above par with everyone else. That’s what Alabama brings to the table. It’s tough to beat.”
He’s ready for any potential hard hits and body blows. After all, he experienced all of that while a starter at Purdue during parts of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Etling was sacked 39 times in 12 starts as a Boilermaker.
He jests when asked about that number.
“I took a lot of hits at Purdue,” he said, “took a lot of hits this season already. Hopefully I’ll be ready for those hits. I don’t know if you can get hit much harder than I’ve gotten hit, at least this season.”
Ole Miss defensive end Marquis Haynes rocked Etling at the end of the first half last week during a nasty, blindsided sack-fumble that resulted in the quarterback slowly walking of the field with trainers. They appeared to tend to his throwing hand and shoulder while on the sideline, but he re-entered the game.
Earlier this season at Auburn, Etling took a hit to his uncovered face and neck after his helmet popped off. He returned after trainers applied medical glue to lacerations above his right eye and between his upper lip and nose.
He laughed that one off, too.
“Face has had better days,” he said then. “Hasn’t thrown off my game with the ladies too much, I guess.”
'GameDay' on the way
ESPN announced Saturday night that its "College GameDay" pregame show will originate from Baton Rouge on Saturday morning.
It will be the 26th time a Tigers game will be highlighted — and the second time this year (joining the opener against Wisconsin in Green Bay). "GameDay" will be broadcast from Baton Rouge for the 11th time.
It's his turn
Danny Etling will be the sixth LSU starting quarterback in the past seven games against Alabama:
Nov. 5, 2011
Jan. 9, 2012
Nov. 3, 2012
Nov. 9, 2013
Nov. 8, 2014
Nov. 7, 2015