The more LSU film Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze watches, the more he shakes his head.
What he’s seen in preparation for Saturday’s game is nothing like what he caught glimpses of for most of the season.
In the past two weeks, the Tigers’ offense has finally looked like it was supposed to all season. LSU racked up 435 yards on Alabama two weeks ago before registering 30 offensive points and nearly 400 yards on Mississippi State. Enigmatic quarterback Zach Mettenberger has also thrown for 296 and 273 yards -- the first time he’s recorded back-to-back 200-plus-yard games.
“I wish they had waited until after our game to become good at it,” Freeze said.
So, what’s with the delay?
That offense screamed athleticism and Mettenberger was supposed to be Sliced Bread 2.0. Instead, he was more like breadcrumbs, averaging just 177 yards and tossing seven touchdown passes compared to four interceptions through the first eight games.
There wasn’t a lot of confidence in the pocket or zip on his passes. He looked nothing like the passing savior LSU expected. He knew he was playing poorly, but he also knew that there were some impractical expectations for him and LSU’s offense.
“The expectations and hype were somewhat unrealistic,” Mettenberger said.
Maybe he was right. His physical tools indicated he would be a major upgrade in the passing game over last season, but he was new to being a starter and he didn’t have a lot of experience to work with at wide receiver.
Mettenberger’s current top four receiving targets entered the season with 63 combined catches, with 41 coming from sophomore Odell Beckham Jr. That lack of experience created confusion on the field, Mettenberger said, and had some receivers not “running their routes like they’re supposed to.”
The offense line was also banged up and was constantly being reshuffled.
Players and coaches were frustrated, but they knew it’d take time to jell and they had to be patient, even if others weren’t.
“Fans and media, they don’t work with us every day. They don’t put in the preparation,” Mettenberger said. “They don’t really know how hard this league is.”
Then, the bye week came. With extra days to prep for Alabama, Mettenberger said emotions swirled as the light started coming on for players. The game was slowing down for him and his receivers and the offensive line started to get more consistent. Practices ran more smoothly, as they prepped with more fire.
“Guys were tired of hearing about how great Alabama’s defense was and how bad our offense is,” Mettenberger said. “And people saying we weren’t going to cross the 50 again. People really took that to heart.”
The Tigers crossed the 50 on their opening drive and found holes we hadn’t seen in Alabama’s defense. However, the Tigers lost, but instead of regressing after such a tough game, they came out swinging against Mississippi State last week.
“This is us,” coach Les Miles said about the offense’s last two performances.
It’s an offense that is making defenses more honest. Teams can’t just stuff the box and take the run away. They have to respect the pass and LSU’s receivers, who have really turned things up.
In the past two weeks, Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone have combined for 31 catches, with 17 coming from Landry. Before the Alabama game, Mettenberger hadn’t completed more than four passes to any receiver in an SEC game.
“When they get on the same page, you’re going to be scared,” wide receiver Russell Shepard said.
It helped that Mettenberger was spot-on. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Mettenberger completed half his passes thrown 15 yards or longer in his last two games, including a season-high seven completions against Mississippi State. In his first four SEC games, he completed 16.7 percent such passes.
(Ole Miss’ defense has allowed ranked teams to complete 17 of 22 (77.3 percent) passes thrown 15 yards or longer with seven touchdowns and no interceptions.)
The numbers are nice, but Mettenberger wants wins -- he wants a BCS bowl -- and he knows he’ll have to keep up his recent level of play to get them.
In order to stay the course, Mettenberger is using that early negativity as motivation.
“That hurt. That hurt my pride a lot,” he said. “I’m staying focused to keep that success going because I definitely don’t want that criticism to ever come back again.”