Zach Mettenberger makes long-awaited start for LSU
There had to be moments earlier this week, as he watched the wind and rain of his very first hurricane lash his adopted hometown, when Zach Mettenberger wondered if his time would ever come.
Freshman year at Georgia. The next season at Butler Community College in Kansas. Then last year’s apprenticeship at LSU behind Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee.
And now this, a malingering hurricane that threatened Mettenberger’s first major college start. This for a man who some LSU fans have jokingly come to believe (probably) can walk on water.
“Probably the longest week of my life,” Mettenberger said Monday before Hurricane Isaac hit. “Hopefully we can practice every day and be ready for Saturday.”
As it turned out, the clouds over Tiger Stadium — where legend has it that it never rains — parted enough for the game to be played as scheduled.
Kickoff will proceed as planned at 6 p.m. in Tiger Stadium between No. 3-ranked LSU and North Texas. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
That will be Zero Hour for the start of the most anticipated quarterback to set foot on the LSU campus since Ryan Perrilloux in 2007.
Mettenberger knows how big a deal this is.
“I’m tremendously ecstatic about the opportunity I have to be the starter for LSU,” he said. “A lot of kids dream of being that guy. I finally get the opportunity to go out there and showcase what I can do and what we can do to go out there and put up some points.”
The LSU program’s vagabond existence to start the last three seasons has in some ways mirrored the college career of its new quarterback.
The Tigers opened in 2009 at Washington (which visits next Saturday), in 2010 in Atlanta against North Carolina and in 2011 against Oregon in Arlington, Texas.
Now LSU starts its season with a home game for the first time since 2008, when Hurricane Gustav’s approach prompted a 10 a.m. kickoff against Appalachian State.
The starting quarterback that day was an unheralded former Harvard quarterback named Andrew Hatch.
That year, Hatch was trying to lead a program coming off a national championship. Mettenberger is charged with getting LSU back to the BCS national championship game and atone for its flat-as-a-tire performance against Alabama.
Many regard Mettenberger as the missing link to LSU’s championship aspirations, the best passer to put on the purple and gold since at least Matt Flynn in 2007, and perhaps in his spare time a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate.
That kind of pressure to perform might burst the seams of other quarterbacks.
Mettenberger may be in his element. “It’s part of the job,” Mettenberger said of pressure to perform. “I’ve always done a little better with a little extra pressure.”
The pressure on Mettenberger to perform, to compress a lump of coal and produce a diamond-studded season, got more intense with the dismissal of big-play producing Tyrann Mathieu.
Still, it’s not unlike the pressure Mettenberger faced at Butler, when he led that program to the junior college national championship game.
“If pressure bothers him he doesn’t show it,” Butler coach Troy Morrell said. “That’s the way he was here. We were highly ranked here. Those expectations probably helped him at LSU.
“He’s a calm, cool, collected guy. That’s what you want. It’s one of his great assets.”
Parallels have been drawn between Mettenberger’s career and that of former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.
Like Mettenberger, Newton was dismissed at an SEC East school (Florida), spent a year in junior college then went to Auburn, where he led those Tigers to the 2010 BCS title.
“I don’t know that anyone had expectations for him to do what he did, but there were high expectations,” said Phillip Marshall of AuburnUndercover.com, who has covered the program most of the last 42 years. “He was viewed as the guy who could be the difference.”
The difference for LSU’s offense with Mettenberger orchestrating the show is expected to be in the vertical passing game.
LSU’s ground game averaged 202.6 yards per contest last season despite a passing attack that ranked 106th of 120 teams nationally, which allowed defenses to stack the box with impunity.
Mettenberger is expected to deliver the kind of passes that will produce quick strikes and force defenses to play honest.
“It’s like fireworks on the Fourth of July,” quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe said. “Everyone is like, ‘Oooh ... ahh.
“We call it being calculatingly aggressive. We want to attack the defense, but by the same token, we want to maintain possession of the ball.
“Zach is aggressive by nature. That’s good. I want a guy who’s aggressive. But we want to temper that aggressiveness to the point where it’s productive, not destructive.”
Sophomore wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who figures to be one of Mettenberger’s top targets, believes his quarterback can deliver.
“He’s a gutsy guy,” Beckham said. “He’ll take those shots deep, and he’ll live with the results.”
Results by which the Mettenberger era will be judged.