STARKVILLE — Mississippi State University defensive coordinator Chris Wilson laughed Monday when talking about LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
The Bulldogs’ second-year defensive coach found it nervously funny that the Tigers’ junior threw for a career-high 298 yards Saturday in a 21-17 loss to top-ranked University of Alabama.
“He is certainly playing his best football at the right time isn’t he?” Wilson asked hypothetically with a smile. No. 22 MSU (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) will take on No. 9 LSU (7-2, 3-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) at Tiger Stadium.
After inconsistencies plagued LSU’s passing game in its first eight games, Mettenberger attempted to quiet talk he wasn’t the man for the Tigers’ pro-style passing attack.
“I think the fans and media needed that kind of game to have confidence in me,” Mettenberger said. “I’m always going to be confident in my ability. I always knew I could play this game, but if I go out against Mississippi State and lay an egg, fans and media are going to be breathing down my neck again. I have to go out and prepare and execute at the level I did against Alabama.”
Mettenberger recognized Alabama’s blitz and took only three sacks. He also was 25 of 34 with a touchdown. Before the game against Alabama, Mettenberger had thrown for more than 200 yards only twice (vs. the University of Idaho and Towson University) and had completed 46 percent of his passes in Southeastern Conference games.
“I thought he and the receivers had a great chemistry and a great anticipation of the throw,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “All of the things we needed to have to show improvement in that game was very evident.”
Despite Mettenberger’s performance against Alabama, MSU hopes it will be able to control him on third down. Mettenberger is 10 of 25 for 154 yards when LSU has a third down and more than 10 yards to go. He has led the Tigers to five first downs in those situations.
“Mettenberger is coming along and playing with some tremendous receivers,” MSU co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Geoff Collins said Monday. “The offensive line is big and physical, so it’s going to be a great challenge, and I’m excited about it.”
It has been a long, winding road for Mettenberger to end up as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. He originally attended the University of Georgia but was kicked off the team due to a violation of team rules. On April 30, 2010, Mettenberger pled guilty to two sexual misconduct charges stemming from an incident at a bar near Valdosta, Ga. Southern Judicial Circuit district attorney J. David Miller said the charges “were the result of Mettenberger grabbing the breasts and touching the buttocks” of a 20-year-old female Valdosta State University student in the bar. He was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 80 hours of community service.
Mettenberger moved to Butler Community College in Kansas and led the team to an 11-1 record and a place in the junior college national championship game. He threw for 2,678 yards and 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
LSU’s total of 296 passing yards Saturday was its most since Matt Flynn threw for 353 in 2007, a span of 53 games. Miles hoped to see the passing game evolve after the Tigers struggled with inconsistent quarterback play for the past four seasons.
“It’s taken us a while to get to that level,” Mettenberger said. “We’ve seen success against a very good defense, and it’s all about continuing that success against the remaining defenses we have to play.
MSU coach Dan Mullen said he didn’t think Mettenberger was a different player against Alabama but that he was more confident in his team’s game plan and that he executed it to the highest level. His performance has caught the eye of MSU’s secondary, which will have to be prepared to face a passing attack that is 11th in the SEC but could be hitting its stride.
“I think when he got started, he got hot, and when you’re hot, you’re on the money,” Mullen said. “What you’re talking about in the SEC games is six inches is an off throw. You have to be that accurate to that point, and that’s what you saw was his accuracy. He got hot, he was accurate, and they were making a lot of plays, and that led to the night he had.”