Danny Etling was all alone.
Every other LSU football player had already returned to the locker room, pregame warmups complete ahead of the Tigers’ morning kickoff against Arkansas last Saturday.
And there was Etling, LSU’s senior quarterback throwing with an equipment manager. Back and forth they threw, the only two people on the field as Tiger Stadium filled with fans about an hour before kickoff.
This was unusual and confusing. What was Etling doing? Why had he not warmed up with other players like usual? Why did he enter the field after everyone had gone in, him and an equipment man carrying a bag of footballs?
The mystery grew after LSU’s 33-10 win over Arkansas, when Etling — a player who appears for media sessions even after the toughest of losses — did not speak to reporters because he needed to visit the training room.
Coach Ed Orgeron yanked the shroud of this mystery Monday: Etling played hurt.
He spent time before the game — and afterward — in the training room, tested out his throwing motion during that solo warmup and then played one of the most efficient games of his LSU career.
He played so hurt — no one will reveal his ailment — that the team’s head trainer, Jack Marucci, warned Orgeron.
“Danny before the game was hurt,” Orgeron said, “and Jack came to me and said this is going to be tough today. And I said, ‘We believe in Danny, and he's going to get it done.’ ”
Etling threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns. He misfired just twice, averaged 20 yards per completion and had an eighth interception-free game in 10 this season.
He found six different receivers with his 11 completions and was 4 for 6 in passes against a blitz. He mostly evaded pocket-collapsing pressure eight times and converted 3 of 5 third-down pass attempts (one was dropped).
All of it was done while hurt, battling a mysterious issue that left him walking “gingerly,” he admits, before the game.
“You know the difference between being injured and being hurt,” Etling said Monday. “Hurting is not the same as being out and injured. I recognize that difference. I know where my body’s at.”
On Sunday morning, LSU tight end Foster Moreau scrolled through the Twitter application on his iPhone and learned the news that Tennessee had …
Orgeron called his performance against Arkansas “tremendous.”
“The guy’s just grinding through some things,” tight end Foster Moreau said, “and is still playing well.”
No. 21 LSU (7-3, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) travels to Tennessee (4-6, 0-6) on Saturday with one of the conference’s most efficient, big-play quarterbacks — as crazy as that may sound.
Etling is third in the league and seventh nationally averaging 9.17 yards per completion. He’s got the Tigers passing offense in a rare place: LSU has 20 completions of 30 or more yards this season. That ranks 18th nationally and is more than the program had in six of the past seven seasons.
Against Arkansas, he not only showed a deep-ball game (45 and 68 yards touchdowns to DJ Chark), but he completed 7 of 9 intermediate pass attempts, and a receiver dropped one of those. Nationally, he’s one of just four quarterbacks who has played in each of his team’s games to have thrown two or fewer interceptions.
Despite the numbers, LSU’s fan base remains divided about its quarterback situation — remember, five-star freshman Myles Brennan waits in the wings. The pro-Etling supporters have even created a slogan they’ve plastered on game-day buttons and signs: “Danny Etling,” it says, “is a good quarterback.”
Even their coach admitted after Saturday’s win that he would have yanked Etling had he not flourished in the third quarter as he did. Etling missed Moreau on what would have been a short touchdown completion, a play that came a week after he misfired on five of six passes of 25 yards or more in a 24-10 loss at Alabama.
“In the third quarter, if he wouldn’t have performed like he would, we would have pulled him,” Orgeron said after the game.
Orgeron added Monday: “It was 7-7, went in at halftime, and I looked at Danny and said, ‘We believe in you. You're going to get it done. Let's go.’ ”
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Etling’s pain was not obvious during the game. He even executed a designed quarterback run off a jet sweep motion, keeping the ball around right end for a 14-yard gain.
The mystery of this “hurt,” as he calls it, remains. Etling suggested that it’s not a “structural issue” like the nerve damage he experienced in his back last season, something he underwent surgery for after the spring game. But he did not rule out his back as being involved in the current problems.
He is often spotted after games walking gingerly or limping out of the locker room. He’s even been observed having issues with the simple act of rising from a chair immediately after a game.
“It was not a close call. I was going to play regardless,” he said about last Saturday. “I feel a lot better than I did even on Saturday. I’m going to be healthier than I was last week.”
Asked a final time to reveal the location of his ails, Etling smiled.
“I already called Tennessee and told them where they can hit me at every single play,” he said. “You can call their guys and they’ll tell you.”
Moreau, Etling’s roommate for the past two-plus years, admits to taking it “a little personal” when fans attack his quarterback on social media. He must restrain himself from responding, he said.
Moreau claims he’s unsure of Etling’s most recent injury woes. During interviews, reporters told Moreau that Etling declined to reveal them, too.
“He’s a smart guy when it comes to interviews,” Moreau said. “He wouldn’t give anything away, and neither will I.”
LSU pass play of 30 or more yards (national rank)
2017: 20 (18th)*
2016: 19 (66th)
2015: 18 (59th)
2014: 19 (56th)
2013: 21 (42nd)
2012: 17 (62nd)
2011: 15 (64th)
2010: 12 (93rd)
*through 10 games
SEC yards per completion (national rank)
1. Drew Lock, Missouri: 9.47 (5th)
2. Jake Fromm, Georgia: 9.23 (6th)
3. Danny Etling, LSU: 9.17 (7th)
Donte Jackson approached LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda after last week’s loss at Alabama with a request.
All 16 of Danny Etling's pass attempts against Arkansas: