Can Danny Etling win the starting QB role at LSU?
It was certainly an interesting night for LSU fans in Death Valley on Saturday, and a game against Jacksonville State brought with it more storylines than you’d normally expect from “cupcake week.”
Notably, with star running back Leonard Fournette hurt, the Tigers appear to have found a strong backup in Derrius Guice, who averaged 8.2 yards per carry. The real story of the night though was the development at the quarterback position, with Brandon Harris benched early on in favor of Danny Etling. The move seemed to spark the offense, but Etling’s play itself often left a lot to be desired, prompting us to wonder if he has done enough to earn the starting job full time.
Why Harris was benched
Harris came into this having struggled somewhat against Wisconsin in Week 1, and his night started poorly against Jacksonville State. Completing just one of the four passes he attempted for just eight yards, Harris failed to get the offense moving. That itself was bad, but the fact that he came close to turning the ball over on 2nd-and-7 with 4:51 left in the first quarter seemed to be the throw that made head coach Les Miles make the switch at quarterback.
It’s a dangerous throw that would likely have been intercepted had both Jacksonville State defensive backs not gone for the ball at the same time and collided. A draw to Guice on the next play was the final snap Harris took on offense on Saturday night, and he left the field with the Tigers tied 0-0 with the Gamecocks. Now, Jacksonville State isn’t a bad football team — their only two losses last season were a 27-20 overtime game against Auburn, and the FCS National Championship Game against the Carson Wentz-led North Dakota State Bison. That being said, for an LSU team coming off a tough loss to Wisconsin and looking to kicks start their season, enough was enough.
Etling provides the spark
Etling took over on the next drive, right at the beginning of the second quarter with the Tigers now down 3-0. LSU would score touchdowns on each of the next three drives, with the first coming courtesy of a 46-yard pass from Etling to DeSean Smith.
Ultimately it was a fairly simple touchdown pass for him, with Smith easily beating the linebacker tasked with covering him one-on-one downfield. Etling put the ball exactly where it needed to be, putting the Tigers up for good early in the quarter.
He was at his best when the offensive line kept pressure away from him, completing 50 percent of his throws for 88 yards when there was no pressure, with that dropping to just 25 percent for 12 yards when the Gamecocks defense got after him.
Why the job might not be his yet
There’s no denying that Etling provided the spark the offense needed, at a time when it looked like they could be in for a long night against a Jacksonville State team eager to prove they belonged on the same stage as the former national champions. Harris hadn’t gotten the job done in the opening quarter and the offense seemed to click more, particularly in the second quarter, with Etling at the helm. That being said, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Considering the level of opposition, there is likely to be at least some concern about how well Etling could handle SEC defenses, with LSU’s next four games coming in conference.
The wide-open touchdown pass to Smith was the lone pass travelling 10 yards or more downfield that he completed. Like Harris earlier in the game, Etling too had a poor interception, coming on 1st-and-10 with 12:20 left in the third quarter. Not to take away from Jacksonville State defensive back Reggie Hall, who made a great play to pick the ball off, but that was a throw that was forced and should never have been thrown.
In the Wisconsin game in Week 1, Harris had a PFF rating of 58.5, while Etling had a rating of 60.5 on Saturday night against Jacksonville State. However last year at Purdue, Etling posted a 54.2 grade for the year, so there’s no gaurantee he’s necessarily an upgrade from Harris.
With talented playmakers at wide receiver –where Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre are among the best duos in the nation — and in the backfield with Fournette the obvious superstar and now Guice emerging, all the Tigers really need is a steady hand at under cetner. Through two games, neither Etling or Harris looked capable of leading the Tigers to the SEC Championship, so this is one battle that likely isn’t over yet.