What was supposed to be a rebuilding year for LSU due to the mass exodus of defensive talent transplanted to the NFL has instead become another season contending with aspirations of a national championship win, but this time it’s thanks to a powerful offense led by quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
The No. 6 Tigers will certainly be put to the test this weekend against a top-ten opponent and SEC rival: the Georgia Bulldogs. LSU-Georgia is lining up to be the marquee matchup this weekend in college football, featuring the two quarterbacks in the SEC with the highest passer efficiency ratings: Mettenberger and UGA’s Aaron Murray.
Here’s how the two quarterbacks compare: Mettenberger is completing nearly 65% of his passes, Murray a remarkable 72%. The two quarterbacks yardage totals are nearly identical: Murray has 1040 yards versus Mettenberger’s 1026. Mettenberger has the edge in touchdown-to-interception ratio: 10 touchdowns versus 1 interception for LSU’s offensive leader; compared to Murray’s 7 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
The two were teammates in 2009 as redshirt freshmen at Georgia, and according to Mettenberger, still consider each other friends.
“I’ll keep in touch with him every now and then,” Mettenberger said. “I don’t text him every day or pen pal him or whatever, but we’re good buddies and it’s going to be fun to compete against him Saturday.”
Mettenberger is from Georgia, and his mother still works at UGA. In theory, Mettenberger was supposed to be a bulldog if he hadn’t been dismissed from the team, which eventually led to his arrival at LSU. Head coach Les Miles is confident Mettenberger can handle the emotion and pressure of returning home to face his old team.
“Zach has earned so much with us,” Miles said. “He’s so accountable, so committed, giving great effort and leadership. All he has to do is go and do the things that we’ve asked him to do and be proud of what all he’s accomplished, what all he’s about to accomplish.”
Meanwhile Murray is poised to start his 45th consecutive game as Georgia’s quarterback, a level of experience not often seen in the SEC.
“I don’t think you rattle a guy like that,” Miles said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the thought process. You pressure him with coverage and disguise. You pressure him with pressure up the field in his face. It’s the mixture. Certainly he also has an issue when he hands the ball off and they don’t gain yards. If they don’t gain yards on a running play, the pressure falls back to the signal caller. But to rattle him, yeah, that’s not something that’s in the plan.”
The passing game may be a new feature for LSU, but they’ve always made a living off their power running, with this year unfolding no differently. Jeremy Hill leads the backfield with 350 yards rushing, but Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrance Magee have all had their moments to shine in a powerful attack. Georgia head coach Mark Richt knows that the rushing attack is still a force to be reckoned with.
“They don’t try and trick you,” Richt said. “They’re like ‘We’re going to line up, we’re going to smash you, we’re going to maul you.’ They’ve done a pretty good job of that over the years. When you got a big guy like fullback JC Copeland in front of you, big No. 44, he’s like a locomotive. Most people get out of his way. Not many people want to take him on, and he paves the way for those backs.”
On LSU’s defensive side, coordinator John Chavis’ young unit is surviving, despite some growing pains through four games. Last week against Auburn, the Tiger defense allowed a 21-point comeback effort in the rain.
But Richt is no stranger to LSU’s history of stoic defenses and knows this young group is just a few steps away from rivaling its predecessors, thanks to an emphasis on basics.
“They play with great fundamentals,” Richt said. “They play with great effort. They tackle extremely well. They have corners that will match up man-to-man on anybody in America and be able to hold up. They’ve got big physical guys in the center; they got great pass rushers on the edge. So they’re very similar in a lot of ways, and the thing that’s different from a year ago is how many of their guys declared to go to the NFL, and now they’re breaking in new starters. They’re not breaking in new players, because most all of those guys played, but not all of them started.”
Mettenberger and his receivers have aired it out with ease so far, while the Tigers running game has overpowered defenses without hesitation. In fact, LSU has tallied more than four hundred yards of total offense in four straight games to start the season for the first time in school history.
But despite all of this early success for the purple and gold, the focus for this Tigers football team remains clear:
“One thing coach always says is ‘You’re only as successful as your next game,'” Mettenberger said. “A lot of times guys can get big-headed, think that they’ve done too much. It’s only been four games into the season, but the way this offense prepares, it’s always about the next game, the next play, the next series, and we’re excited to go out there and play Georgia.”