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LSU quarterback Danny Etling (16) is sacked by Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson (22) and Alabama linebacker Tim Williams (56) in the first quarter, Saturday, November 5, 2016, at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

The ball slipped from Danny Etling’s grasp as it left his hand.

It bounced 2 feet in front of Travin Dural, standing wide open at the first-down marker on a pivotal third-down play. Dural barked at his quarterback as the two walked off the field, and Etling, soon afterward, slammed his helmet to the ground.

“At the end of the day, it’s football, and you want it to be perfect,” center Ethan Pocic said. “It ain’t perfect.”

Third-down woes doomed LSU’s offense in the 10-0 loss to top-ranked Alabama on Saturday, eventually crushing the Tigers’ chances at a monumental upset. They were 4 for 15 on third down. Their quarterback was 4-for-9 passing on those downs, was sacked three times and threw three of his completions short of the first-down line.

Etling felt pressure on about half (14) of his 29 drop-backs against the Tide, but the junior struggled, even, from a clean pocket, misfiring a host of times in critical situations — namely, on third down.

Etling’s troubles were so obvious that CBS color analyst Gary Danielson asked millions watching at home a rhetorical question during the second half of the game: “Can Danny Etling make the simple throw?”

 

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An offense that motored to school records in three double-digit wins now faces familiar questions at a beleaguered position heading into a road game against Arkansas (6-3, 2-3 Southeastern) on Saturday. The 19th-ranked Tigers (5-3, 3-2) meet the Razorbacks at 6 p.m. Saturday in Fayetteville, Arkansas. 

The presumed solution, Etling, at LSU’s longtime problem, quarterback, is in question.

“I mean, it was totally out of character,” interim coach Ed Orgeron said. “There were some plays, the receivers were wide open. I think it was the first third down. He threw the ball into the dirt. Seemed like he was nervous or anticipating getting hit. I don't know. I didn't see him yet. I didn't talk to him. It was totally unlike his character, but he did not play well.”

Etling captained an offensive unit that Orgeron said was “out of sync,” but he wasn’t all alone in the blame. There was miscommunication in several areas: between Etling and his receivers on routes; among offensive linemen on pass protections; and with staff members on play calls.

After rewatching Saturday’s game, players identified the issues. They weren’t “on the same page,” Pocic said, and they didn't execute “all together at the same time,” receiver D.J. Chark said.

“It’s like,” Chark said, “on every single play, if one thing doesn’t work, then the play’s not going to work.”

LSU’s nightmarish 11 failed third-down attempts show struggles across the offensive unit — the line, the receivers and the quarterback.

For instance, Etling misfired on a handful of them. He bounced that pass to Dural on third-and-12, threw behind receiver Malachi Dupre on a third-and-6 and tossed low of tight end DeSean Smith on a third-and-8.

Orgeron and staff never toyed with the idea of inserting Brandon Harris, the coach said when asked Saturday night and again Monday.

“In order for us to take out Danny, we would have to really think that Brandon can go in there and do a better job,” Orgeron said. “And he'd have to show us that in practice; and right now, we don't believe that.”

Etling felt pressure on at least five of those 11 third downs, going down three times and throwing a pass that did not cross the line of scrimmage — a critical intentional grounding on a third-and-8 late in the third quarter.

Receivers failed to create separation for Etling. He found Chark and Dural on crossing routes for 2 and 3 yards on third downs in which LSU needed 7 and 8 yards, respectively. Both receivers were tackled immediately, an Alabama defensive back draped on their backs as they caught the pass. Chark subtly pointed to Bama’s pressure when asked about shaking the Tide’s defensive backs.

“Danny having to get the ball off quick against those great rushers, it’s hard to get separation that fast,” Chark said. “Separation or not, you have to be able to make plays. That’s the part us receivers have to work on.”

Fullback J.D. Moore pointed to the lengths of the third downs as a determent to converting them.

In its 11 failed third-down tries, LSU needed to gain an average of 8.4 yards for a first down. Just one of those third downs was of 5 yards or less, and Etling attempted a pass of more than 30 yards on that third-and-3.

The biggest missed opportunity came before a third-and-3 at the Alabama 35-yard line with less than 5 minutes left in the third quarter. Waving his hands in a frantic fit, Etling called for the play call while glaring at the LSU sideline. It finally arrived with 10 seconds left on the play clock.

The Tigers were called for delay of game and then, on third-and-8, Bama defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson rushed around Maea Teuhema, playing left tackle, to pressure Etling into that intentional grounding.

“The cadence was too long,” Pocic said of the third-and-short before the delay penalty. “We were just trying to get the play in. I don’t know what happened, whether we got the wrong play or miscommunication with the signal. All I remember is it came in late. They blew the whistle.”

All of that said, this isn't the time to panic, Etling said.

“I don’t think you need to freak out,” he said Monday. “It’s one performance, one game. You didn’t execute like you wanted to. Everyone could want to jump ship at times like that, but you’ve got to keep grinding away and getting better.”

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THIRD AND TROUBLE

LSU's 11 failed third-down conversions against Alabama.

Yards needed

 Yard line

 What happened?

 Why did it happen?

 7

 Bama 30

 Etling sack for loss of 2  yards

 Malone and Jeter missed blocks

 17

 50

 Etling sack for loss of 1  yard

 This sack appears to be on Etling  and not his line

 8

 LSU 49

 Etling incomplete screen  pass to Fournette

 Etling threw slightly behind him, but  the screen never had a shot because  of blocking (Etling felt pressure  after a man beat Clapp)

 7

 Bama 42

 Etling completed a 2-yard  pass to Chark

 This is a crossing route, and Bama  had a man on tight coverage who  immediately made the tackle

 6

 LSU 39

 Etling incomplete pass to  Dupre

 Etling throws well behind an open  Dupre, who would have picked up  the first down

 8

 Bama 45

 Etling completed a 3-yard  pass to Dural

 This is another crossing route that  LSU’s receiver catches but Bama’s  defender make an immediate tackle

 12

 LSU 23

 Etling incomplete to Dural

 This was Etling’s worst pass of the  game, a one-hopping 10-yard  attempt to an open Dural at the  first down stick

 9

 LSU 7

 Etling completed to  Fournette for an 8-yard  gain

 This is a dump-off to Fournette and  is the same play in which the  umpire accidently impedes him

 3

 LSU 10

 Etling incomplete to Dural

 After a timeout, LSU coaches elect  to throw deep when the need 3, and  Etling overthrows a covered Dural

 8

 Bama 40

 Etling sacked for a loss of  11 yards

 This came after a delay-of-game  before third-and-3. Maea Teuhema,  playing LT, was beat on the edge to  force Etling from the pocket

 8

 LSU 35

 Etling incomplete to  DeSean Smith

 Etling threw it low of Smith

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.