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Passing Tiger


Danny Etling raises LSU’s championship hopes.
sportsoct2016The list of great LSU quarterbacks has been burnished over time with the glow of memory: Y. A. Tittle, Bert Jones, Steve Ensminger, Alan Risher, Herb Tyler, Tommy Hodson, Jeff Wickersham, Matt Mauck, Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell — these names are hallowed in Tiger lore. More recently though, quality quarterbacking has been harder to come by as a succession of extremely talented field leaders have taken their team to winning seasons but have halted short of national championship runs due to limitations ultimately exposed on the field. Whether it was Jordan Jefferson, Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris (who threw every pass in 2015), LSU’s quarterbacks have brought a variety of weapons and skills to the game but have found themselves unable to propel the Tigers back to the big game.

The tolling of the bell finally occurred in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the first game of the 2016 season, as the Tigers failed to score a win in a game they appeared to have won. Starter Brandon Harris failed to keep drives alive and ultimately threw a game-deciding pass right into the hands of an awaiting Wisconsin Badgers defensive back, as the Tigers lost 16-14. How it happened was not as important as the fact that it had happened before — repeatedly. Dating back to at least the finale of the 2007 season — with the devastating 21-0 loss in the national championship game to an Alabama Crimson Tide team, which LSU had proved superior to earlier in that year — LSU suffered a series of setbacks in similar games that it had appeared they had won handily and yet somehow they came up short in the final score in key games.

In the next game, as LSU struggled versus a supposedly outclassed, lower division Jacksonville State team, it became readily apparent to all concerned that this was yet another game where LSU puzzlingly could not pull away despite seemingly dominating in almost all phases of the game. After a few more errant, fluttering tosses from Brandon Harris, head coach Les Miles suddenly made the call to bring in the backup quarterback, Danny Etling. It is a typical football adage that the backup quarterback is always the most popular player on a team. In one of the most memorable debuts in Tiger history, Etling blew up the visiting Gamecocks by generating 27 offensive points in less than two quarters after his team had been moribund, while trailing 0-3 for the quarter before that. Etling repeated his success by starting the next game versus Mississippi State and never yielding on the way to a 23-20 victory. In both games, Etling threw beautiful, deep touchdown passes to jumpstart the offense. And with the greater threat through the air, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron opened up his playbook in both games to include a wider variety of pass routes and backfield motion plays than Tiger fans had seen in some time. Showing arm strength and game management skills, Etling gave Tiger fans encouragement that they might have found a new leader in the old mold who could reignite their championship dreams.

Etling had taken a long road to reach that point in Baton Rouge that night: originally hailing from Terre Haute, Indiana, Etling had taken steps to enroll early at nearby Purdue University to get a head start on his college career. Purdue itself has a long history of great quarterbacks, from Len Dawson to Drew Brees, so Etling was headed to a program with a great tradition. However, fate intervened as the head coach who signed him, Danny Hope, was fired, and so Etling began his college career under a different system than he had anticipated.

Nonetheless, despite being oft overmatched as a rebuilding program with a deficient defense and a poor offensive line in the mighty Big Ten, the Purdue Boilermakers took strides with Etling under center. Most notably, in Purdue’s rivalry game versus Indiana, he completed 33 of 49 passes for 485 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. That was the culmination of a season in which Etling had lost the coach who had recruited him as a four-star, nationally praised prospect and then had to learn how to play the position in a different system as a true freshman in one of the nation’s toughest conferences. At that stage, Etling certainly seemed to be the cornerstone of the young but hopeful Boilermaker program.

Yet during the course of the next season, the decision was made to start a different quarterback — and, despite starting five games, Etling became the backup and watched his team struggle through the remainder of the schedule winless under a different field general. At that stage, it became clear that Etling had the talent but not the opportunity to succeed on the highest level of college football. Understandably, he sought out a different setting in which he would have more opportunities — and he found it in LSU Tigers football. In the same way, LSU could have looked at Etling’s career at Purdue and disregarded his capabilities just based on his statistics and winning percentage as a starter. Instead they saw a highly rated player who had the full skill set to run with and lead a premier program with a huge offensive line — a pro-ready stable of running backs and a top-10 defense that would put him in a position to win and succeed every game. With Etling now firmly at the helm of the super talented LSU squad, which has seemingly had everything but capable quarterbacking recently, it must be a scary thought to SEC opponents to realize the Tigers may finally have a complete team on both sides of the ball.