Mettenberger brought toughness, stability to QB position

Tommy Hodson distinguishes a quarterback from a thrower by determining his courage.

Surrounded by converging defenders, does he stand upright in the pocket?

In the face of a pass-rusher, does he launch a throw?

“A lot of guys out there can throw a football,” said Hodson, the former LSU quarterback who led the Tigers to a pair of SEC titles in the late 1980s. “The difference: the good ones can stand in the pocket and take a hit like that.”

That is this: Standing in a collapsing pocket with a defender bearing down on him, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger stepped forward, threw a deep pass to receiver Jarvis Landry and was driven to the ground.

The senior won’t play another game for the Tigers. He suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas last Friday on that play and will miss the bowl game.

His exit from the college game — though tear-jerking and abrupt — could not have come in a more fitting fashion.

For a guy most describe using one word — tough — Mettenberger’s storybook at LSU ended with a sad but appropriate chapter.

Byran Jones, the Arkansas defensive tackle who slipped by backup center Ethan Pocic and made the crushing hit, had 5 yards of open grass between him and Mettenberger.

Mettenberger had to see him.

It didn’t matter.

The quarterback took a step toward a sprinting Jones and rifled the pass. Jones smacked Mettenberger at the waist and fell on him.

The QB’s left leg, fully straightened, was crushed under the 318-pound body.

CBS, broadcasting the game to a national audience, aired the gruesome scene in slow motion.

“Oh,” said CBS color analyst Aaron Taylor, “I can’t watch.”

And, so now, 14th-ranked LSU (9-3) turns to young, elusive backup Anthony Jennings for its bowl game, likely in Dallas (Cotton) or Tampa, Fla. (Outback).

But this column is not about the new blood.

It’s about a guy who ended the line of erratic quarterback play at LSU.

It had been since 2006 since an LSU quarterback had a QB rating as high as Mettenberger had this season (113).

In four of the previous five seasons preceding Mettenberger, LSU started at least two quarterbacks.

For a half-decade, the position was a weak spot, a struggling area for a program that seemed to have everything else — defense and a run game.

Then came Mettenberger, a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder with a rocket of an arm.

He arrived as an unsettled and immature kid, some say.

He found trouble in a Georgia bar in 2010, was kicked off the Georgia football team, starred at a junior college and then ended up on the bayou.

A starter for two seasons at LSU, Mettenberger’s body of work is complete.

The verdict on his legacy is in.

“He’s one of the great ones,” said Skip Bertman, LSU’s former baseball coach and athletic director who’s been around the program for decades.

The numbers back it up.

Mettenberger is the first LSU QB to pass for at least 2,500 yards in back-to-back seasons and is just the third LSU quarterback to surpass 3,000 yards passing in a season.

His 2013 stats rank among the best in LSU history.

Mettenberger’s 22 touchdowns, 3,082 yards and 64.9 completion percentage are all third on the school’s single-season lists.

Sure, the game’s changing. Teams pass the ball more than ever. Offenses are developing — and moving — at a light speed pace. Defenses are giving up chunks of yards.

And Mettenberger never won a conference championship.

Still …

“He’s only the third LSU quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season,” Hodson said. “We’ve been playing football a long time at LSU.”

Mettenberger’s biggest pitfall, he even admits, was his stubbornness in passing over the safe-and-secure short route for the risk-and-reward deep pass.

On his final play, Mettenberger chose risk-and-reward.

He stepped up in a folding pocket, hurled a deep ball in a defender’s face and was sent crashing to the turf.

He gave LSU fans one final play to remember him by, one final word.

Said Bertman: “Tough kid.”