Zach Mettenberger’s performance against Alabama on Saturday night shows that the expectations for him weren’t unrealistic, just the timetable for them was.
Playing against the No. 1 team and the No. 1 defense in the country, Mettenberger put on a display for a Tiger Stadium-record crowd and a national television audience the attributes that made him such a highly regarded recruit.
Though the Tigers came up on the short end of a 21-17 score, Mettenberger and the passing game came to life.
The expectation that Mettenberger was going to step in as a first-year starter and immediately elevate the LSU passing game to a higher level than it performed at last season was unrealistic and unfair.
But the sporadic success of the passing game through eight games led to understandable doubt as to whether Mettenberger was merely going through an unavoidable transition to Southeastern Conference football or if he simply wasn’t as good as advertised.
On Saturday night, he was as good as advertised, especially in the second half.
Mettenberger, who had completed just 11 of 29 passes for a season-low 97 yards in LSU’s last game at Texas A&M two weeks earlier, had his best game by any measure.
The coaching staff showed increased confidence in him by asking him to throw a season-high 35 passes against the most efficient pass defense in the SEC. Mettenberger responded with a season high in completions (24), one game after matching his season low in completions.
His 298 passing yards were the most this season, surpassing the 238 he had against Towson.
For the second consecutive game, Mettenberger threw a touchdown pass against an SEC opponent after he failed to throw any in the first three conference games.
For the second consecutive game Mettenberger did not commit a turnover after committing at least one in each of the first seven games.
Tigers coach Les Miles said he was “thrilled” with the way Mettenberger played, saying he was “competitive and fought.”
Mettenberger’s statistics show this was his most productive game, but his body language suggested it might have been more than that.
In the second half, especially, Mettenberger seemed the most comfortable and confident he has been all season. His dropbacks and play-action fakes were crisp, he was decisive in choosing where to throw the ball, he planted his foot firmly in the ground and delivered the ball with force and accuracy.
He had shown each of those characteristics on occasion, but this seemed to be the first time he had displayed them in unison for an extended period of time.
Mettenberger wasn’t perfect. He missed a few throws and seemed unaware of oncoming pressure on a couple of sacks, but overall, the performance still was a revelation.
But just as the problems with the passing game prior to Saturday weren’t all Mettenberger’s fault, neither was all of the improvement because of him.
The offensive line, which allowed fairly consistent pressure in the second quarter, mostly held its own against the Tide.
The receivers, despite a couple of drops in the first half, had their best game of the season.
Perhaps it was the group heeding strength and conditioning coordinator Tommy Moffitt’s advice to catch 200 balls a day off a JUGS machine before practice that made a difference.
Jarvis Landry tied a career-high with eight catches and outfought a Bama defender for a 14-yard touchdown. Odell Beckham Jr. had an acrobatic sideline catch among his four grabs.
Kadron Boone also had four as the wideouts totaled 16, tying a season high.
Saturday, of course, was just one game, and the test for the passing game will be for everyone involved to be consistent.
But as for the quarterback, this seemed more like a breakout performance than an aberration.