An anticlimactic Tiger Stadium debut proved that Mettenberger follows his own script
By Cody WorshamPosted Sep 5, 2012
There’s a convenient storyline with LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
It’s a tale of redemption that’s been told a million times and, ergo, requires only the briefest recounting. Dismissed from the University of Georgia football team in the spring of 2010 following an arrest on misdemeanor sexual battery, Mettenberger joined LSU in 2011 seeking personal atonement for his past.
But that’s only half the story for the former four-star recruit and much-heralded junior college prospect. Mettenberger’s road to redemption goes two ways: he came to LSU not just to receive it, but also to give it. Since Mettenberger first pledged his loyalty to LSU, he’s been called “a really nice quarterback” by his head coach, “a first-rounder” by his teammates, and “the missing link to LSU’s championship aspirations, the best passer to put on the purple and gold since at least Matt Flynn in 2007, and perhaps in his spare time a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate” by local media.
Then there’s the nicknames he’s earned from fans. Mettenswagger. Swaggenberger. And, of course, Mettsiah.
With so much hype surrounding Mettenberger, it’s not surprising that Saturday’s solid-but-unspectacular 19-of-26, 192 yard, 1 TD, 1 INT debut as LSU’s starting quarterback fell short of fan expectations.
How could it not?
Changing the play
Here’s the thing with Mettenberger: he’s not necessarily interested in following a script.
An evidential anecdote: in Mettenberger’s last significant snap prior to Saturday’s 41-14 win over North Texas, he checked out of a handoff to Tiger running back Terrence Magee in a fourth-quarter blowout against Ole Miss in 2011, and ran a naked bootleg instead. He took it all the way to the one yard line before being run out-of-bounds.
“I know people will say I called my own play and went against Coach Miles, but they had a blitz on,” Mettenberger said afterward. “I was just trying to keep Terrence Magee from getting killed in the backfield.”
Right call or not, Miles was none too pleased. In addition to a verbal hide chewing on the sideline, Miles literally took the ball out of Mettenberger’s hands, forcing him to take four straight knees at the LSU one-yard line as punishment.
“I actually think I led the NCAA last year in knees taken,” Mettenberger joked. “I’m not very proud of that record.”
A lesson in humility, for sure, but it was as much a learning experience for Miles as it was Mettenberger. Player showed coach that day that he’d do whatever it takes to make a winning play – even if that means breaking from the game plan.
“I’m not going to change who I am,” Mettenberger said. “I’m not going to go out there and be a robot.”
“Not a fan of it”
Mettenberger also seems to have this attitude toward the fans and media – and the thin line between the two. Even on that plane, he’s not necessarily interested in living up to expectations or filling preordained roles.
There’s no doubt LSU fans are hungry for redemption – and not just from 2011 and its anticlimactic ending. Since LSU’s last national championship in 2008, the Tigers have been vanilla, if not successful. The offense under previous signal-callers Andrew Hatch, Jarrett Lee, and Jordan Jefferson was often rudimentary and stale. Accordingly, Tiger fans in 2012 don’t just want wins; they want stylish wins.
Mettenberger seemed to promise fireworks. His arm is explosive, and his audaciousness suggests the ability for the spontaneous big play. It wasn’t so much the prospect of victory that led fans to call him Mettsiah. LSU has had plenty of those. The moniker also came from the hope of deliverance from boring, banal football.
Yet as much as the Tiger faithful want Mettsiah, he’s got his own agenda.
Actually, he objects to the nickname.
“Not a fan of it,” he said.
In fact, throughout the offseason, when talking about Mettenberger, both Mettenberger and Miles seemed to be speaking less toward the quarterback and more toward fans in an effort to simmer expectations.
“The key to him,” Miles said at media day (“to” being the operative word, as opposed to “for”), “is take it a day at a time, not put the cart in front of the horse.”
In other words: “Cool it, guys.”
Mettenberger echoed the message.
“I don’t need to go out there and be superman every play of the game,” he said. “I just need to get the ball into the playmakers’ hands, be a game manager, but also make plays from time to time.”
The more one talks to him, the clearer it becomes: what motivates Mettenberger isn’t salvation. He doesn’t want it, and he’s not interested in giving it, either. That’s not why he’s here.
“More than anything I wanted to be a winner,” Mettenberger said of his decision to come to LSU.
And with Mettenberger, talk of victory doesn’t seem cliché. Boasting a 15-27 record as a prep, he’s actually desperate for success.
“I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself where I could play for a winner,” he said.
Not that he doesn’t feel capable of putting on a show; he just doesn’t feel compelled to do so.
“If we needed to, we could go out there and throw it 60 times a game,” he said. “But we’re going to be wasting five running backs who are every down running backs at any other school.
“We’re going to do what it takes to win football games.”
Rogue that he is, even Mettenberger got a little too excited for his own debut. He admitted to getting a little over-energized for his unveiling Saturday.
“I probably got a little overhyped,” he said. “That’s kind of uncharacteristic for me.”
It showed. For the first half, Mettenberger seemed uncomfortable. He overthrew receivers, he patted the ball, and he got called for intentional grounding in a moment of panic. Worst of all, he threw an interception on the one-yard line.
He also got popped square in the jaw on a front side corner blitz, a blow late in the first half that temporarily knocked him out of the game – but knocked him permanently back into the moment.
“I got a pretty good shot right there, and it was the first time I had gotten hit in a year and half,” he said. “It kind of brought me back to reality.”
Mettenberger settled in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter. He showed his talent on his first touchdown of the season, an absolute laser of a throw on a Kadron Boone post route into the smallest of windows.
“I knew I could fit it in there,” he said afterward.
All in all, it was a good performance, but not the great one Tiger fans hoped for from Mettenberger. He had a feeling it was coming, however: the letdown.
“That’s fans,” he said. “That’s what they do. They get excited for something new every year. I’m going to go out there and be a game manager. I need to make plays when they present themselves, but I don’t need to force anything.”
If that’s the standard to which Mettenberger is playing, he did his job. He managed the game. And, more, he also showed – especially on the touchdown throw – that he’s capable of the big play and is not satisfied with adequacy.
“I’m not particularly pleased with my performance tonight,” he said. “But I can assure you I’m going to play a lot better.”
Not that he didn’t warn us he would need time to get settled.
“I’m going to be a work in progress just getting used to playing in the big time game and having the spotlight,” he said this summer of his transition into the starting role.
“I’ll be the center of attention for the first time in a long time.”
Still, it doesn’t eradicate the deflation felt after an opening victory Miles called “sloppy.” Coming off the hardest defeat in LSU football history, the 92,000 fans present and the rest watching at home wanted something explosive to bring down the prison of memory that is January 9, 2011.
Instead they got, well, a lot of the same. The offense was productive and balanced, if not risk-taking. The play calling was both appropriate and uninspiring. There was no volatility, no impulsiveness, and no sign that 2012 will be much different from 2011.
But just like Mettenberger is not interested in personal or program salvation, this team is not interested in atoning for last year. Nor should they be. They have their own agenda: a national championship.
And not for salvation’s sake. For victory’s.
“I got the first one under my belt,” Mettenberger said. “The sky is the limit from here.”