No. 20 LSU football goes into its Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi State still looking for answers when it comes to pressing questions regarding its passing game.
The Tigers and Bulldogs will kick it off Saturday night (7 p.m. ET) at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.
LSU coach Les Miles looked to have come up with an answer last week when Danny Etling replaced struggling Brandon Harris at quarterback at the start of the second quarter against Jackson State and provided a dramatic, but short-lived, spark to the offense in the Tigers' 34-13 victory.
Etling, a junior transfer from Purdue, gave the offense an immediate lift when his first possession ended with a 46-yard touchdown pass to tight end De Sean Smith. In the second quarter he completed six of eight passes for 100 yards and LSU scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions after his entrance to take a 27-10 halftime lead.
But the storybook script changed during the second half when Etling had zero completions and one interception in six attempts.
The Tigers still prevailed, but Etling's uneven performance wasn't sufficient for Miles to name him the starter for LSU's SEC opener against Mississippi State. Instead Miles declared an in-season competition between the two quarterbacks, something he reiterated at his weekly news conference.
"We'll need both guys to play in every game," Miles said. "We're not turning our back in any way on competition in that position. I will not name a starter until I talk to my team."
Regardless of exactly how Miles divides the work between the quarterbacks, he said he's hopeful that the break last week will help Harris regroup. The junior has been erratic for three-plus seasons and was 12-of-21 passing with two interceptions in the opening loss at Wisconsin.
Harris completed only one of his four attempts against Jacksonville State for an eight-yard gain, all in the first quarter.
"We would like to think that a respite from the starting quarterback and the pressures thereof might allow him to take a deep breath and step forward and compete," Miles said. "We saw it as a positive."
Mississippi State, meanwhile, seems to have settled its quarterback situation.
Though he played only seven snaps in the opening 21-20 loss to South Alabama and didn't complete any of his three pass attempts, sophomore Nick Fitzgerald was given the nod to start "moving forward," and he responded in a big way.
Fitzgerald played all four quarters in the Bulldogs' 27-14 bounce-back win over South Carolina last week and established a new school quarterback rushing record with 195 yards.
"After that first game, I didn't want him to think or that he needed to worry about that," State coach Dan Mullen said. "Even through camp or Game 1, I don't think there was pressure one way or the other but going forward I didn't want him to have to feel that. I'm sure that helped him a little bit."
A redshirt sophomore, Fitzgerald ranks second nationally among quarterbacks in rushing, averaging 103 yards per game, and sits sixth overall in the SEC in rushing. He is averaging an astounding 10.3 yards per carry on his 19 rushing attempts.
His immediate predecessor, Dak Prescott, provided production as a dual-threat quarterback during his time at MSU, but Fitzgerald features a contrasting running style at 6-foot-5, 230-pounds.
"Nick's a different style runner than Dak was," Mullen said. "I think he's faster and a little more explosive with the ball in his hands than Dak. We will have to see his physicality. I don't think he's as physical as Dak was, but it's a little different style of running."
Fitzgerald needs to make improvements in the passing game. He has completed 19 of his 32 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on the year.
"Hopefully, he looks at the things he did well and continues to do those things well and looks at the mistakes and doesn't make those again," Mullen said. "I'm sure he'll make some different mistakes Saturday night at LSU, but, hopefully, the mistakes he's already made he'll correct and fix and plays with confidence."