By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
It comes as no surprise that the running game played a critical role in the matchup between No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 LSU on Saturday night in Baton Rouge. The Crimson Tide and the Tigers owned two of the Southeastern Conference’s top three rushing attacks, so the teams’ 74 attempts and 305 combined yards on the ground was business as usual for these two squads.
The big question mark coming in, at least for LSU, was what to expect in the passing game.
Prior to Saturday night’s monumental showdown with top-ranked Alabama, Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger had not performed exceptionally well in big games for LSU, completing just 44 percent of his throws in a road loss to Florida and 37 percent in a narrow win at Texas A&M.
For most of the season, Mettenberger has been maligned as the primary reason for the Tigers’ struggling aerial attack, which ranked towards the bottom of the SEC. That narrative changed on Saturday night in Death Valley however, when the junior quarterback played his best game on the biggest stage of his collegiate career.
Facing a 14-3 halftime deficit against arguably the best defense in college football – the same defense that held LSU out of the end zone for eight quarters in 2011 – Mettenberger rose to the occasion and led two scoring drives to put the Tigers in position to win in the game’s final minutes.
Late in the third quarter, Mettenberger orchestrated a 13-play, 58-yard march against the Tide that culminated in a Jeremy Hill touchdown run. On the drive, Mettenberger completed three of his four pass attempts for 35 yards and the Tigers pulled to within four points of Alabama. On the following possession, Mettenberger went to work once again, completing four-of-five passes for 82 yards, including a beautifully thrown back-shoulder fade to Jarvis Landry that resulted in a touchdown and a 17-14 advantage for LSU.
With the Tigers backed into a corner, Mettenberger acted as the catalyst for a 14-point rally in the most important sequence of the season for LSU. When the going got tough, Mettenberger got going and went 14-for-17 in the second half for 206 of his 298 yards and a score. He set career marks for attempts, completions and yards against what had been an unflappable Alabama defense, and it took a heroic scoring drive from the Crimson Tide in the closing minutes of the game to escape Tiger Stadium with a victory.
“I think their quarterback played really well,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban remarked following the game. “There was a stretch in the second half where they converted seven straight third downs-and-five or more. We couldn’t get off the field on third down.”
Following the lead of their signal-caller, the Tigers rolled up 435 yards of offense against Alabama, 153 yards more than Bama had surrendered in any game this year, and recorded the first 400-yard game against the Tide since Nov. 6, 2010. LSU converted on 50 percent of its third down attempts, including 7-of-11 in the second half, and exploited the Crimson Tide for over five yards per play (more than any team this season).
“I was thrilled with how Zach Mettenberger played,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I can tell you that he made all the passes and that he was competitive and fought […] There was a lot of confidence in the throws and more confidence in the receivers.”
Mettenberger said after the game that he would have traded three interceptions for a win over the Tide, but his performance in the second half was the reason that the Tigers held a lead in the fourth quarter, putting Alabama behind in the final period for the first time since 2010. The Crimson Tide ultimately responded with a game-winning drive that will put this game down in SEC history as an instant classic, but that classic finish would not have been possible without the play of Mettenberger.
A loss is never easy to swallow, but Mettenberger ultimately answered his critics in the biggest of moments on Saturday night, giving the Tigers even more confidence moving forward.
“The receivers, the offense and I knew we were fully capable of that all year,” Mettenberger said. “There are finally things that are clicking for us. We have something to build off of that we’ll work on Monday so we can get ready for Mississippi State.”