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All eyes on Etling as LSU tries to bury Auburn

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

After a shocking season-opening upset to Wisconsin stirred emotions of frustration, anxiety and disbelief among LSU’s fan base, a sweeping calm has suddenly fallen over the Bayou Bengal faithful as the team tries to extend its flawless conference record to 2-0 against Auburn this weekend.

It’s amazing what hope at the quarterback position can do.

In the loss to Wisconsin, incumbent starting quarterback Brandon Harris delivered a painfully inept performance that, although not entirely to blame, played a significant part in his team’s downfall. The junior completed only 12-of-21 passes with a pair of interceptions, one of which could not have come at a more inopportune moment for the Tigers.

Trailing by two and within range for a game-winning field goal attempt in the final minute, Harris evaded a first-down sack, setting himself up with ample throwing time. Rather than scramble for a few yards to set up a more feasible field goal attempt or throw the ball away, though, the young quarterback elected to deliver a present to the outstretch arms of Wisconsin defensive back D’Cota Dixon — handing head coach Les Miles his first non-conference loss in 12 years at the helm of the program.

The play summed up Harris’ LSU career to a point — an abundance of athletic gifts served no match for a costly lack of in-game mental fortitude. This revelation of little to no growth in the passing game was set to doom a team that entered the season as a premier national title contender.

Miles then did the unthinkable, setting aside the stubbornness that nearly got him fired last fall and deviating from “his guy” under center… and it just might have saved his team’s season.

Purdue transfer Danny Etling was handed the keys to the offense after another poor start for Harris in week two, and the Tigers have not looked back.

It is not as though Etling is setting the world on fire: the junior has completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 315 yards, two touchdowns and one interception through two appearances.  So why the optimism?

Because the Tigers never needed greatness at the quarterback position. With arguably the most talented player in college football in Leonard Fournette, as well as a defense that has the ability to wreck havoc on any opposing offense, all they need is a serviceable game manager that can execute the offense without committing game-changing mistakes.

Naturally, all eyes are on Etling as he prepares for his first career game in a hostile SEC environment. Fortunately for Etling and company, Auburn is an utter mess at the moment.

Gus Malzahn is the embodiment of a lame duck head coach at this point, as the once-heralded offensive mastermind will need an improbable turnaround to save his job with another finish at the bottom of the SEC standings looming ahead.

Despite playing 2015 national title runner-up Clemson within a touchdown in its season opener, Auburn has not appeared competitive this season.

September 12, 2015: Auburn Tigers quarterback Sean White (13) during the Auburn vs Jacksonville State game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, AL.

Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire

Sophomore quarterback Sean White has put up a respectable stat line of three touchdowns and one interception, but considering all three touchdowns came against Arkansas State in week two, Auburn appears to be in trouble against a potent LSU defense. The Auburn defense is commanded by a familiar face in former LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.

Steele has managed to produce a legitimate passing defense capable of containing formidable quarterbacks, which so far this season includes the likes of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight. Auburn’s run defense is a different story, though, allowing running backs to hit the 100-yard rushing mark in each of its two games against Power Five opponents.

This week is an important benchmark for the LSU offense, especially Etling. Nothing is holding the Tigers from Baton Rouge back from blowing out their opponent in embarrassing fashion. With Leonard Fournette carrying the rock against a suspect defense, anything less would border a letdown.

While the final score will probably not indicate a crucial moment for LSU as a whole, though, Saturday remains vital for a passing attack looking to gel as it approaches the heart of its SEC schedule.

Matchup to Watch: Arden Key vs. the Auburn offensive line

The fresh face at quarterback may be the primary focus of outside attention this week, but the matchup between the LSU pass rush — particularly defensive end Arden Key — and the Auburn offensive line will determine the trajectory of the game.

Key, who stated a goal of 20 sacks prior to the season, has not disappointed through three games. The sophomore has already racked up five sacks in 2016, tied for the second-most in the nation behind Houston’s Steven Taylor. Expect Key and his teammates on the defensive front to terrorize an Auburn offense that is allowing an SEC-worst three sacks per game this season.

Prediction

If LSU’s passing attack continues to display growth under Etling, the Bayou Bengals should cruise to a victory that resembles the 24-point beatdown they put on Auburn last year. If not, their running game should be dominant enough to leave their opponent dispirited by the fourth quarter.

Either way, it would take a major implosion on LSU’s part for Auburn to keep this one close as the game progresses.

Final Score: LSU 35, Auburn 20 

All eyes on Etling as LSU tries to bury Auburn

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