Danny Etling has been thrusted into spotlight as LSU’s new starting quarterback when the Tigers needed a cataylst to awaken an offense brimming with athletic talent.
The first decision point came early in the second game against Jacksonville State. He entered and would finish 6-for-14 with 100 yards passing, one touchdown, and one interception. More importantly, the Tigers began to move the ball and never looked back.
The second decision point came prior to last week’s game against Mississippi State. Etling hadn’t been so impressive against FCS Jacksonsville State that he was a lock for a position Brandon Harris had controlled off-and-on since 2014. Last Saturday, Etling would improve upon his first performance and go 19-for-30 for 215 yards and one touchdown. LSU has only thrown the ball more than 30 times in a game once since 2014.
The offense is opening up and it is causing the entire offense to play better. Average yards per play and red zone appearances have both risen from 2016’s low against Wisconsin. It’s not just the raw stats, but also Bill Connelly’s Five Factors of Winning confirming the early improvement.
Against Wisconsin, LSU’s offense had an overall success rate of 36%. That number rose to 46% against Jacksonville State, and stayed at 40% against Mississippi State. The passing success rate was 44% against Mississippi State while the running success rate was a mere 36%. If LSU’s passing success rate was similar to the Mississippi State game it may have beaten Wisconsin.
A feature of Etling under center is more of LSU’s skill players are being utilized. He distributed the ball to eight different players against Mississippi State including tight end DeSean Smith and seven targets alone to running backs Darrel Williams, Derrius Guice, and JD Moore. Considering Darrel Williams had the highest receiving success rate (75%) of LSU’s pass-catchers against Mississippi State, LSU is finding success checking down. An offense rarely goes broke taking what the defense gives them.
This approach appears to be a break from last season. If receptions are a healthy indicator of targets, Harris overwhelmingly threw to his receivers as opposed to his other options in 2015. LSU’s receivers can win their fair share of matchups, but LSU’s running backs can probably win an even higher share of their matchups versus other teams linebackers trying to cover them in space.
It’s just been one game against an SEC West opponent, but the results are promising, even more so if Etling continues to improve. LSU has a game-changing running back in Leonard Fournette, but his efficacy is limited if opponents stack the box and shade safeties to the field side to take away the deep pass. Fournette needs support, but so do receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. Etling completing more passes underneath will only further boost their numbers, and by extension LSU’s fortunes.