Anthony Jennings has a chance to make his mark

In the Outback Bowl, freshman Anthony Jennings — like other LSU QBs before him — will get ...

TAMPA, Fla. — Kirk Ferentz was sure of one thing: If LSU had to play its third-string quarterback, his Iowa team would “be in good shape,” he said.

“That’s how smart I am,” the Iowa coach poked at himself.

That third guy — JaMarcus Russell — passed for 128 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, leading the Tigers to a one-point lead over the Hawkeyes in the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

It didn’t last — Drew Tate hit Warren Holloway for a 56-yard game-winning touchdown as time expired — but Ferentz learned a stern lesson: Don’t underestimate LSU backup quarterbacks.

He’s not taking this backup — Anthony Jennings — lightly.

“We’re not sure what exactly to expect,” Ferentz said, “but I know this: We can count on a really good player being back there.”

The 12 bowl practices are complete. The month-long layoff is behind them. The three-week buildup is over.

No. 14 LSU (9-3) and unranked Iowa (8-4) meet in the Outback Bowl at noon Wednesday at Raymond James Stadium with nothing much more than pride on the line.

For the Hawkeyes, it’s a chance to take down a recent powerhouse from the nation’s elite conference and slap LSU with a third straight bowl loss, something that hasn’t happened since 1984-86.

For the Tigers, it’s a shot at a fourth straight 10-win season, securing a top 15 poll finish and impressing a group of highly rated recruits who are in the area for Thursday’s Under Armour All-American Game.

But the real attraction in this New Year’s Day clash is easy to spot: Jennings.

“We expect him to play well,” LSU coach Les Miles said, repeating a phrase he’s used a half-dozen times during this six-day stay in Tampa.

He has good reason to feel that way, of course.

Jennings, a true freshman from Georgia, led LSU on a 99-yard game-winning march in the regular-season finale against Arkansas. He showed poise in the pocket, quick feet and an accurate arm.

Moments after Zach Mettenberger suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Jennings led his memorable march to avoid an embarrassing loss.

Others took notice.

“He moved them in about as extreme circumstances as you can possibly dream up,” Ferentz said. “For him to move from incoming freshman to the No. 2 guy the way he did, knowing that they’ve got a senior who’s going to go on to the NFL, I think that says a lot.”

Forgive Ferentz if his praise for LSU’s backup-quarterback-turned-starter fills the brim of the cup and then spills over.

He underestimated the skill and talent of another LSU backup once before. The Tigers have a history of backup QBs bursting out in postseason games.

Jordan Jefferson (2008 Chick-fil-A Bowl), Ryan Perrilloux (2007 SEC championship) and Matt Flynn (2005 Chick-fil-A Bowl) were backups who started a postseason game and led LSU to a victory.

Not just that, but all of those won an MVP award.

“Playing a backup quarterback at LSU might not be a good thing based on recent past experience,” Ferentz said to reporters in Iowa earlier this month.

The month-long mystery behind LSU’s offensive gameplan with the mobile Jennings will finally be revealed.

Most players, and Miles, have insisted the Tigers are committed to sticking with their normal offense, the balanced attack operated by a true pocket-passing QB who struggled with mobility.

But there have been signs that LSU has new wrinkles planned, namely designed runs for its new QB.

Ferentz, sitting alongside Miles during a joint news conference Sunday, even admitted to expecting some changes.

How much is unclear.

“It’s still more pro-style,” running back Alfred Blue said of the offense last week, before adding, “a little different changes.”

Jennings has not been made available to reporters since an interview following the Arkansas game. Miles and his players must supply updates on a guy who last year around this time was enrolling in LSU as a consensus four-star rated prospect, a top five QB nationally.

Now, he’s the starting quarterback in a nationally televised bowl game against the seventh-best defense in the land.

The other coach is worried, yes.

His coach? Nah.

“The greatest characteristic of Anthony Jennings is poise,” Miles said. “He’s always had it. He did it in the spring of the year. He pursued the starting job with great effort and energy. He’s always been a guy that came in and sought extra coaching, sought knowledge of the game when he was second team.

“The confidence of the team, really, when he went under center, didn’t change. We kind of knew what to expect.”