ATHENS, Ga. — If he was honest with himself and the prying world around him, Zach Mettenberger probably had the scenario he truly wanted.
LSU down three, 1:42 left to play, the ball in his hands, 92,000 people jammed into Sanford Stadium — the field of his childhood dreams — coming completely unhinged around him.
All that stood between Mettenberger and glory was 76 yards of Georgia real estate and a Bulldogs defense that spent the day retreating before him like his name was William Tecumseh Sherman.
Like LSU’s first superintendent, Mettenberger could picture himself and the Tigers marching through the red shirts to the sea of Georgia’s west end zone — to victory.
Unfortunately for Mett and his LSU teammates, Tiger Stadium isn’t the only place where opponents’ dreams come to die.
The only time Georgia stopped LSU from scoring the entire second half was at the end, when the stop mattered most. Mettenberger was sacked on first down, recovered to move the chains with an 18-yard pass to Odell Beckham Jr. but then threw four straight incompletions as he failed to budge the Tigers off their 35.
He returned to the LSU sideline and took a knee at the opposite 35, helplessly watching Aaron Murray, his long-ago rival for the Georgia starting job, take a knee twice to run out the clock on an incomparably dramatic 44-41 victory.
When it was over, Mettenberger sprinted to midfield to embrace Georgia coach Mark Richt, the man who made the painful decision to kick Zach off his team three years ago, then ran straight to the LSU locker room.
After he emerged from that somber place, Mettenberger tried to box this game into a perspective that stubbornly defied reality.
“It was just another game,” Mettenberger said in his detatched, football-dude manner. “For myself and my teammates, it was just another game.”
It was much more than that, and surely Mettenberger knows that. And for him, despite what the Sanford Stadium scoreboards mutely testified long after LSU boarded buses to head to the airport, there was certainly a measure of victory.
Pride and the Tigers’ won-loss record took a bruising, but in the end this defeat in and of itself won’t cost LSU too dearly. Losing by three on the road to No. 9 Georgia won’t hurt No. 6 LSU much in Sunday’s polls. It wasn’t an SEC Western Division defeat, so LSU still is very much in control of its destiny if operating on a now hair-thin margin of error. Its BCS hopes are still as much alive as they were when LSU suffered midseason losses to Florida in 2003 and Kentucky in 2007.
As for Mettenberger, sometimes a man can appear to stand taller in defeat than in victory. He played the best game of what is still a relatively short LSU career, completing 23 of 37 passes for 372 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
It was the most passing yards for an LSU quarterback of the Les Miles era, the most since Rohan Davey riddled Illinois for 444 yards in the 2002 Sugar Bowl. He now has 13 TD passes in five games, one more than all of last year, and just the one interception last week against Auburn.
Yes he was aided by some brilliant grabs from Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr. and Kadron “I Just Score Touchdowns” Boone. But he couldn’t overcome a critical muffed punt by OBJ that lead to a Georgia touchdown or the lack of a dependable running game (77 net yards) or the four times he got sacked.
“I felt like Zach performed great, and that’s exactly what we needed him to do,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Zach came here to play quarterback for the Tigers and to try and lead his team to victory, and that’s what he did. Was he perfect? No, but he was good.”
No, he wasn’t perfect. He was high on a few throws, including one for a wide-open OBJ near the Georgia goal line that forced the Tigers to settle for a second-quarter field goal. One of his four sacks should have been a pass chucked through the end zone when he held onto the ball too long.
But that is nitpicking Mettenberger’s otherwise exceptional performance. He won the jousting match with Murray — who was 20-of-34 for 298 yards with four TDs and one interception that led to an LSU touchdown — but lost the war.
And that is what Mettenberger will have to live with the rest of his life. Like the arrest that led to his dismissal at Georgia 3½ years ago, he can’t change this outcome.
Sometimes, as Mett found out in 2010, there are no second chances. He’ll never play a game at Georgia, or in his hometown, ever again.
Of course, if he keeps playing like he did Saturday, he may get another crack at the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game. And Mett knows first-hand what it’s like for a team to lose an oh-so-close regular-season heartbreaker, only to come back and find redemption in the postseason.