Zach Mettenberger (Getty Images)
LSU QB Zach Mettenberger had one of the best games of his career last season against Alabama. If the Tigers want to pull off the upset Saturday, they'll need another solid outing from the senior gunslinger.
Odell Beckham noticed a little extra passion in Zach Mettenberger before last year’s game against Alabama.
The LSU quarterback had moved into the center of LSU’s pregame huddle, a space typically occupied by guys like Lamin Barrow or Eric Reid. But Mettenberger had a message to get across to his teammates.
“I wanted to rally the troops, get them fired up to go,” Mettenberger said. “I let them know I was going to play my best for those guys and I expect the same.”
That’s when Beckham picked up on just how motivated Mettenberger was for his first game against the Tide.
“I remember Zach getting in there and taking his helmet off,” Beckham said. “It just looked like fire was in his eyes, like something had just him.”
Mettenberger rode that extra emotion to what at the time was the best performance of his career. He completed 68.6 percent of his passes (10 percent more than his average heading in) for 298 yards, which surpassed his average by 121 yards.
Mettenberger threw for 298 yards against Alabama last season
He was particularly electric on third down. LSU entered that game converting just 38 percent of third downs, but Mettenberger converted eight of 10 total through the air.
He did get sacked three times in that game, but more importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over, bringing his team within one defensive stop from a major upset in Tiger Stadium.
“That was Zach’s coming out party,” said LSU RB Jeremy Hill. “It allowed him to transform into the Zach that we all see every Saturday. He’s done a great job learning from that game. It’s allowed him to play with that confidence and swagger we need from him this season.”
Though LSU didn’t come away with the victory last year against Alabama, that game did serve as a launching pad of sorts for Mettenberger’s career. An average quarterback in terms of production before that contest, Mettenberger has blown open the record books since then.
On the precipice of breaking almost every significant mark for a LSU quarterback, Mettenberger has been the catalyst of the Tiger’s offensive resurgence this season.
In the 13 games since last facing Alabama, Mettenberger has thrown for 3,384 yards and 23 touchdowns, completing 63.4 percent of his passes. He has 51 pass plays this season of more than 20 yards, and LSU is No. 2 in the nation on third down conversion (57.6 percent) behind his leadership.
“My job’s easy when I just get the ball to our guys,” Mettenberger said. “I did a good job of that in that [Alabama] game…I guess that was my defining moment. I don’t have to do a lot to be a successful quarterback on this team.”
Can Mettenberger match his success against Alabama?
If there’s one formula to beating Alabama, it’s solid quarterback play. Two of the last three quarterbacks to beat Alabama were Heisman Trophy winners and even Jordan Jefferson, who beat Alabama twice, played mostly mistake-free football against the Tide.
Johnny Manziel accounted for 562 yards of total offense in the Aggies’ loss to Alabama this season, and maybe if Johnny Football played defense as well, there would have been a different result.
Now LSU may not need a Herculean effort like that from Mettenberger to win Saturday, but they will need him to shine again.
“Our quarterback has to play well,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “We have to have balance, both run and pass, so that it becomes something that he can do routinely or without having to make great plays. It'll always be balance that allows us to really have the best quarterback play.”
It’s also about not making mistakes. Mettenberger has come down to Earth in the last two games, throwing five interceptions against Furman and a depleted Ole Miss defense.
“He’s learning from him mistakes, whether they’re mental or physical,” said LSU WR Jarvis Landry. “He’s getting back in the film room, correcting those mistakes. This bye week gave him a chance to evaluate himself and get his feet under him again.”
The Tigers will certainly hope they get a rejuvenated Mettenberger that more resembles his early-season form. But he can’t get complacent after once tasting success against Alabama.
Miles did admit that there are some matchups they like against the Tide secondary, but with Nick Saban at the helm, LSU’s not expecting the same look it exploited last year.
But Mettenberger won’t be the same either. As he called it, they’re “putting a new dress on the same girl,” running different routes out of the same formations. Mettenberger would be happy if he has the kind of production he did last year, but with a different result.
“We were doing the right things at the right times [last year],” Mettenberger said. “That’s what we’re going to need to do again this year, but obviously score more points this time around.”
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