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QB play paramount for LSU’s upset hopes

Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire

For LSU junior running back Leonard Fournette, there’s no doubt that Saturday night’s game against the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide is personal.

Fournette was stuffed for just 31 yards on 16 carries in last season’s 30-16 defeat against Alabama. Poof! His Heisman Trophy hopes all but vanished.

Overall, Fournette is averaging 55 yards rushing against the Crimson Tide — and 131 yards against all other teams.

He wants to make his mark.

But if Fournette is to become a formidable force — and if LSU hopes to upset Alabama — there’s an even more important factor.

Tigers quarterback Danny Etling must play well.

He must provide stability. He must avoid the crushing mistake. And those are qualities he has displayed since taking over as the starter early in the season’s second game.

“He’s a quiet leader, leads by example, hard worker,’’ LSU interim head coach Ed Orgeron said.

“He takes hits back there and doesn’t say a word. He always wants to get better. He’s always in the office studying film.

“He has to manage the game. He’s going to get hit. He’s probably going to get sacked once or twice. He needs to take care of that football, set his jaw, come back and play again. Manage the game, call the plays, do the things that he’s asked to do.’’

It might sound mundane, but it’s oh so true for LSU.

Not many people will pick LSU to upset Alabama, but everyone can agree on this: LSU has the type of team — and the type of athletes — that can create problems for the Crimson Tide.

It has always been that way, making for a ferocious rivalry. Alabama has won five straight games in the series, though, including a 21-0 decision in the BCS Championship Game that followed the 2011 season.

Many times, it seemed that LSU only lacked consistency at quarterback. Etling, who replaced Brandon Harris, has seemingly provided that missing quality.

Etling, who didn’t play in the opener against Wisconsin, is fifth in the SEC in passing efficiency. He has completed 89 of 147 passes for 1,129 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

He seems to have the right perspective on the challenge of facing Alabama.

“I just have to play within myself,’’ Etling told reporters. “You have to play at an extremely high level, mistake-free football and execute the game plan. You don’t have to do anything special or play outside ourselves. Just be confident in what we’re doing.

“I don’t think it’s going to take a stroke of luck, but it will take a lot of dedication and hard work. We have to execute. They’re the most talented team in the country.’’

Orgeron agreed with Etling’s assessment.

He compared Alabama’s defense with the unit he helped coach at USC, when Pete Carroll’s Trojans finished No. 1 two seasons in a row.

“I think they’re better defensively,’’ Orgeron said. “They’re stronger. They’re stouter. They play with great technique. They’re very opportunistic.’’

It will be a severe challenge, even for an elite talent such as Fournette.

“We’re going to do some things with Leonard that he’s able to do,’’ Orgeron said. “I think that whatever happened last year is the past. We have a great game plan for Leonard.

“But I will say this to you: It’s going to be very tough moving the football on this defense. They’re one of the best defenses I’ve ever seen.’’

For that reason, it’s imperative that Etling plays an efficient game. If that happens, LSU has its best opportunity for an upset that would change the face of this college football season.

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