BATON ROUGE, La. — A nostalgic look back started the day when LSU went through the paces of the National L Club Spring Game on Saturday, a celebration of a oh-so-close 2011 season when the Tigers accomplished so much, but allowed the biggest prize to slip through their fingers.
With an estimated 33,000 fans on hand on a perfect March day at Tiger Stadium, LSU’s 2011 team was honored for the SEC championship and individual honors were handed out.
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But it didn’t take long to figure out who the crowd showed up to see more than anyone else.
That became obvious as soon as the White team’s offense trotted onto the field and Zach Mettenberger took charge as the Tigers’ starting quarterback for the first time.
The reaction: A noisy ovation for the well-traveled Georgia native who some in the fan base have already dubbed “The Mett-siah.”
On cue, the rising junior didn’t disappoint.
Sparked by Mettenberger, the White offense – mostly consisting of LSU’s first team – churned out 381 total yards on 44 plays in a 24-17 victory.
Mettenberger passed for 242 yards in the first half on the way to 270 and connected on touchdown passes to Odell Beckham Jr. and Russell Shepard.
“We had a lot of fun out there,” said Mettenberger, whose winding odyssey has taken him from Athens, Ga., to Eldorado, Kan., and finally to Baton Rouge last fall. “We had a couple of turnovers that happened.
“For the most part, though, we were out there having run and we’re looking forward to summer workouts and getting better.”
Beckham and fellow receiver Jarvis Landry took turns making big plays in the passing game – Beckham with three catches for 115 yards, Landry with six grabs for 120 yards.
The Tigers’ offensive bread-and-butter didn’t take a back seat, as both offenses ran the ball well, combining for 230 yards on 50 attempts. Alfred Blue set the pace with 73 yards, followed by Spencer Ware with 51 and Kenny Hilliard with 40 against the Tigers’ first-team defense.
Defensively, three interceptions played a big role – two were returned for touchdowns and another thwarted a score when Ronald Martin sniffed out a route and picked off Mettenberger in the end zone.
All of that became background noise with Mettenberger on center stage, especially after he uncorked his first long pass in the first quarter – a 54-yard, on-the-money heave to Landry when Mettenberger stepped up in the pocket and delivered the ball on the move.
“The line did a great job of protection and Zach Mettenberger did a great job of putting the ball on the spot,” Landry said. “Once it was thrown my way, I just caught it and did what I had to do with it.”
Mettenberger’s next throw wound up in Martin’s hands and he rambled 40 yards the other direction, tackled by Mettenberger of all people.
“I was pretty ticked off from the pick,” Mettenberger said. “That’s what I’ve got to do. If I throw one: I’ve got to cover it. I’m not afraid to tackle.”
Nor was he shy about stretching out a right arm that has Tiger fans eager for a bombs-away offense after four years of unpredictable and often inconsistent offense from quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee.
When the White got the ball back after the missed chance, it was staring at a third-and-13 from the Purple 49-yard-line after an end-around to Shepard imploded.
That was the last play of the opening period, and when the teams came back out, Mettenberger faded back and launched a picture-perfect strike to Beckham streaking down the left sideline for a touchdown.
Beckham later grabbed a 53-yard bomb.
“He’s done that all spring,” LSU coach Les Miles said of Beckham. “There’s no magic there. He has the ability run and has good ball skills. We have a couple of deep threats there now.”
And a trigger man Miles seems more comfortable allowing to take shots downfield.
After four erratic years with Lee and Jefferson – often both – running the offense, Miles was refreshingly frank about how much different and potentially better the Tigers’ offense could be under Mettenberger.
“The ability to throw the football is just a little better,” Miles said. “Call it confidence, call it chemistry, call it a new quarterback. I really thought we had two very talented quarterbacks before, but it just appears to me that there’s just a little bit more juice on the ball and a little more capability.”
And that could make the Tigers’ powerful running game that much more dangerous.
While there were plenty of big pass plays and attempts mingled in – Miles called it vanilla with sprinkles – there was also the familiar grinding running game.
As the case was last season, the carries were distributed evenly among several backs, with Michael Ford and Terrance Magee out of action with injuries.
Blue and Hilliard were the most impressive of the five running backs, all who carried the ball at least six times. Blue was quick to the hole, made quick and decisive cuts and ran downhill.
Hilliard wasn’t fazed by running into the teeth of LSU’s first unit and showed the kind of wear-down- power Miles loves his backs to possess.
“Each and every day we come out to practice, and Coach Frank (Wilson) calls out the 1s and 2s and we go get it,” Hilliard said. “Running against those guys every day, I know what I can do the job against a great defense.”
Added Miles, “We’re going to be a talented running team and it’s going to be giving the ball to who’s talented and best first.”
“We’ll challenge anybody to play a single-high coverage against us, and if they play double-high, then frankly we’ll have an opportunity to run the football. It’s pick their poison.”