BATON ROUGE, La. – On LSU’s first possession of the second half Saturday night against BYU, Danny Etling dropped back to pass on first-and-10 from the Cougars’ 42. He planted and threw from LSU’s 49, just inside the right hash, and hit Russell Gage at the 17-yard line, just inside the far boundary. Gage was tackled on the 10.
The pitch-and-catch was good for 32 yards, but considering the dropback and throwing across the field, the ball was thrown almost 50 yards. And it was on a rope.
With that one pass Saturday night, Etling should have quelled any lingering doubts about his back injury, which limited him during the 2016 season and required offseason surgery.
Take a similar play from last season’s Citrus Bowl win over Louisville. With 1:01 to play in the first half and LSU leading 16-3, Etling dropped to throw from his 23. Trying to avoid pressure and throw the ball away, he launched it from his 13 on the left hash. The ball never made it to the far sideline, and was intercepted at the 33.
Eight months ago, Etling couldn’t throw a ball away from 30 yards. Saturday night, he was throwing darts from 50.
Let’s not mistake Etling’s arm strength for Aaron Rodgers or even former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris. Hose. Cannon. Laser. Those adjectives should never be used as descriptions of Etling’s right arm. But what he did show Saturday is that he is a physically better thrower than he was a year ago. The question is if a healthy Etling is good enough to win tough road games against the likes of Florida and Alabama.
“I think the thing with Danny is we all have confidence in him,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Tuesday. “But everybody is waiting to see him win the big game. And let me say this correctly: He’ll never win the big game by himself. We’ll do it as a team.”
True enough that Etling won’t be asked to tackle, kick or catch, but quarterbacks affixed with the “game manager” label don’t beat Alabama. Playmakers such as Deshaun Watson, Chad Kelly, Johnny Manziel, and Cardale Jones are the ones who have tripped the Tide in recent seasons.
In his epic performance to beat Alabama and win Clemson’s first national title since 1981, Watson racked up 463 yards of offense and four touchdowns. Etling and the Tigers were shut out against that same Tide defense in Tiger Stadium.
LSU hasn’t been able to scale Crimson Mountain in any its past six tries. There is no mistaking the “big game” Orgeron alluded to: LSU’s trip to Tuscaloosa in November. The Tigers won’t have Watson, but they will have a stronger version of Etling than they did a year ago.
(You can follow Matt Moscona on Twitter @MattMoscona)
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