LSU opened the season without much fanfare last Saturday, dominating in ho-hum fashion against a vastly inferior North Texas team. It was no secret entering the game that all eyes would be upon Zach Mettenberger, the fan-appointed savior to the LSU offense. 508 yards later, LSU message boards were afire with rampant criticism of the offensive line, Mettenberger, playcalling... all things LSU offense.
Is the criticism warranted? Is the 2012 LSU offense doomed to fail? Will the Zach Mettenberger experiment be an utter failure? Does a single game, against North Texas, answer all these questions? Beyond the fact that it's early yet to give up on any team or player, after the jump I'll explain why LSU fans should be encouraged by Mettenberger's performance against North Texas.
For the past four seasons, inept QB play became the new normal for LSU. Gone were the days of Jamarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, Matt Mauck and Rohan Davey. LSU fans became so disillusioned with the the level of play, mediocrity became touted as greatness. Either time Lee or Jefferson performed solidly, a slew of optimism followed regarding how they had finally "turned the corner." If insanity is truly doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result, LSU fans truly embodied it.
Thus, once finally divorced from such ineptitude, expectations became immediately unreasonable. It would not be sufficient for Zach Mettenberger to take the starting reins and perform as a modest, efficient game manager. No, for LSU fans, Mettenberger needs to be a Heisman Trophy-contending, BCS-title winning, gun slinging son of a bitch. He needs to throw for 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Otherwise, he can't possibly be any better than anything LSU fielded in 2011, right?
LSU fans who came into 2012 hoping for a new, pass-oriented offense set themselves up for disappointment. The fact is, no coach would opt into a pass-first offensive philosophy with a stable of running backs as deep and talented as currently inhabit LSU's roster. Further, historically, Miles is a coach who prefers a daunting rushing attack which is complemented by a downfield passing attack. Unfortunately, in the previous four seasons, that passing attack literally never came to pass.
However, labeling MIles as a coach who loathes passing is a misnomer. He threw plenty when Russell, Flynn and dating back to his OSU days, Josh Fields, were at the helm. True, his run/pass split still favored a rushing attack, but rather than the 80/20 of 2011, the split looked more like 60/40. For Miles, the right quarterback makes all the difference.
It's early yet, but it seems Mettenberger will be another QB Miles can trust. He attempted 26 passes on Saturday, which would have been the 3rd highest number of pass attempts for an LSU QB last season. Though more than a few of these could easily be labeled as glorified handoffs via the bubble screen, he did take a few shots down field, and, perhaps even more encouraging, he worked the deep middle on multiple occasions. For Lee, this proved to be a trouble area in year's past. For Jefferson, he rarely made decisions quickly enough to find receivers open here. Opening up that dynamic of the offense alone makes for a more dangerous attack.
Further, Mettenberger exhibited a poise in the pocket. He stood tall, scanned the field, made big throws and took a few (too many) big hits. Lee proved particularly weak in this area, often bailing or getting rid of the ball at the slightest pressure. Jefferson tilted to the other side, holding on to the ball too long while being indecisive. Early in the game, in an third and long situation, Mettenberger stood tall and delivered a strike to Odell Beckham Jr. It's a throw we haven't seen made in four years. The combination of arm strength and poise often make for a good QB. Mettenberger shows both early on.
Though, what may really distinguish Mettenberger is the proper level of confidence. He carries himself as a team leader and with even a bit of swagger. Yet, he's able to critique his own play in post-game press conferences. It's striking that right balance, something we never saw the previous four seasons.
For many LSU fans, tempering expectations will prove to be wise. Les Miles isn't going to adapt a 40-pass per game attack, and nor will he be hamstrung by limited QB play in 2012. Mettenberger showed promise against North Texas, with plenty to build on. Relax, Tiger fans. Good things are to come.