LSU busted out something more shimmering than its gold jerseys Saturday night: a passing game.
Well, at least in the first half.
New starting quarterback Danny Etling passed for 215 yards, and the No. 20 Tigers held on — barely — to beat Mississippi State 23-20 in gold-bathed Tiger Stadium.
Etling completed 19 of his 30 attempts, threw a crowd-rousing 37-yard touchdown strike to open the scoring and manned an offense that rumbled for 392 yards. The Indiana native (and Purdue transfer) may have cemented his place as the starter, sparking a passing unit that struggled with junior Brandon Harris at the helm.
"This is more of what we were in search of," coach Les Miles said of his offense. "Etling executed the things we asked him to do."
Leonard Fournette returned after missing a week with an injured ankle, rushing for 147 yards and scoring his first two touchdowns of the season. But he fumbled twice, helping the Bulldogs mount a wild, late rally.
State nearly stormed back from a 20-point deficit in the final five minutes. The Bulldogs scored their first touchdown with 4 minutes, 10 seconds left to make it 23-13, then recovered an onside kick. They scored two plays (and 40 seconds) later to pull within 23-20.
The Tigers needed a final stand from a defense that had spent much of Saturday in State's backfield. Outside linebacker Arden Key, lining up in his defensive end stance, sacked State backup Damian Williams on fourth down, all but ending one that the Tigers nearly let get away.
"It’s very frustrating," receiver Travin Dural said. "It’s something we preached on all summer — start fast, finish fast. Tonight we just didn’t finish fast."
LSU scored the first 20 points and then rode its Heisman Trophy hopeful in the second half, milking the clock on a hot, humid night. The Tigers defense stifled State coach Dan Mullen’s squad in this Southeastern Conference opener. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s group swarmed around and substituted at a high rate, rolling up six sacks.
A rainbow appeared over Tiger Stadium during the second quarter Saturday.
State finished 1-for-14 on third-down attempts.
"We have some guys that can fly," Miles said. "Arden Key, Lewis Neal, Kendell Beckwith ... devastating weapon on third down."
They were all in gold in LSU’s annual “Gold Game” — even the players. The Tigers played in gold jerseys for the first time since 1998, and they donned white helmet, with numerals, for the first time since 1971. They opened conference play with the throwback, flashy uniforms, drawing roars from the crowd when they raced out of the tunnel.
The offense matched those fancy tops — at least early on — by scoring on three of their first five possessions for a 20-0 lead midway through the second quarter. The Tigers (2-1, 1-0) scored two touchdowns in the opening quarter, rolling up seven first downs and 127 yards on 21 plays.
The offense, though, slumped in the second half. The Tigers were shut out despite the fiery start, finishing with just 110 yards in the final two quarters. Fournette lost a fumble, and he failed to pick up a first down on a fourth-down run, a turnover that sparked State’s first touchdown.
"We had a chance to run away with it in the second half," Etling said. "We just let it slip."
The game came down to State's final series in front of a nearly empty Tiger Stadium. The Bulldogs' rally was oh-so-similar to LSU’s late spurt in a 34-29 home loss to Mississippi State in 2014. LSU went three-and-out and punted with 2 minutes, 15 seconds left.
Josh Growden boomed a punt 61 yards, pinning State inside its 25-yard line. Cornerback Donte Jackson had a pass breakup on second down, and Key pressured Williams on third before his sack on State's final play.
Aranda called the same play on that fourth-and-8 as he did on third down.
"I got real close. They (called) it again. I said, 'OK, I’ve got to get him. I’m going to get him,' " Key said.
Starting his first game in nearly two years, Etling, the junior from Indiana, completed 14 of his first 20 passes, spreading the ball around to seven different receivers during a fiery first half.
A host of guys got firsts.
The LSU defense was on the field for a long time in the fourth quarter on a hot, muggy Satur…
Receiver D.J. Chark caught his first touchdown pass, a 37-yarder from Etling to open the scoring. Fullback J.D. Moore, by the third quarter, doubled the amount of receptions he had in his career (two), and tight end Foster Moreau, a sophomore, caught his first pass.
Etling distributed the ball like a seasoned pro-style quarterback, shredding the State secondary in front of an announced 99,910.
Fournette looked like his typical self — aside from the fumbles. He rebounded from the first missed game of his career, last week's win over Jacksonville State. He lowered the boom on at least four State defenders, breaking a host of tackles with a physical mindset Tigers fans have come to embrace. He did not speak to reporters after the game.
Fournette wasn’t 100 percent, either, and Miles said afterward that coaches discussed putting him on a carries limit.
"We talked about a pitch count, but he didn't want (it)," Miles said.
ESPN reported before the game that Fournette was sore Friday night and his status was “iffy” to play in Saturday’s game. He sprained his ankle during preseason camp and then suffered a significant bruise to the same ankle during his last carry in the season opener against Wisconsin.
Fournette scored his first touchdown in what’s likely his last college season late in the first quarter, and he rumbled into the end zone in the second quarter, ripping off a tackle-breaking 25-yarder that sent this arena into a frenzy.
The defense stood tall, too, against 6-foot-5 quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and his zone-read offense. State didn’t crack the 90-yard mark until the third quarter, and the Bulldogs punted on their first four drives.
State crept within 23-6 and got possession after a lost fumble by Fournette. The defense rose again.
The Bulldogs reached the LSU 29-yard line before safety Rickey Jefferson swatted a sure touchdown pass from the hands of State’s top receiver, Fred Ross. On third down, Neal crashed into the backfield for a sack to force a punt — a common theme. State punted seven times.
It’s the other team that had QB problems Saturday. Fitzgerald missed, at least, two wide-open receivers on would-be touchdowns, and Mullen yanked the QB midway through the fourth quarter. Williams sparked the Dogs to back-to-back fourth-quarter touchdowns.
D.J. Chark finally scored a touchdown — a receiving touchdown, that is.
"We were pretty shocked, but I felt we kind of let of the gas toward the end and it costs us almost," Key said.
Now, it's on to Auburn (1-2, 0-1), which lost 29-16 to Texas A&M on Saturday.
Miles said he would "anticipate" LSU starting Etling against Auburn. Harris did not play against Mississippi State.
Said Etling: "I know Auburn is a tough place to play."