Getting benched as the starting quarterback at a Power 5 program might rank among the loneliest feelings in college sports. Etling endured it in the Big Ten before transferring to LSU last year, and now Harris has experienced it, too, after Tigers coaches yanked him in favor of Etling in the second quarter of Saturday’s 34-13 victory over Jacksonville State.
“I empathize a lot with him,” said Etling, who went 6-for-14 for 100 yards and a touchdown and also scored on a 2-yard run. “It’s not a fun position. It’s terrible and it’s something that maybe only quarterbacks can understand, and it’s something that I definitely understand. I really wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.”
But after Harris followed an unproductive start against Wisconsin with two three-and-outs to open Saturday’s game -- both series featuring ugly incompletions from Harris -- the boo birds quickly came out in Tiger Stadium.
Moments later, Etling had his helmet on and a ball in his hands on the sideline, warming up as he prepared to take over at quarterback.
Etling roared out of the gate, leading the Tigers to touchdowns on each of his first three drives. He connected with tight end DeSean Smith on a 46-yard touchdown pass just six plays after entering the game. He followed with touchdown marches of 79 and 64 yards as LSU rolled up 193 yards in the second quarter alone and claimed a 27-10 halftime lead.
“We went a couple series and really felt like Brandon was not comfortable,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “So we figured we would bring Danny in. He was productive certainly almost right away, so we decided to let him stay.”
Not that there was much of a reason to change. LSU (1-1) had scored just one offensive touchdown in 13 series with Harris at quarterback. Etling started 3-for-3 on finding the end zone, although he didn’t do much afterward, once the game was well in hand.
He completed six of his first eight passes -- with the two incompletions coming on a drop by Malachi Dupre and a long ball to tight end Colin Jeter that bounced off his helmet as he leaped in an attempt to reel in the pass -- but went 0-for-6 in the second half. He threw an interception in the Jacksonville State end zone on a deep ball to Dupre and also lost a fumble after being sacked by Darius Jackson on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
“He was not perfect by any means,” Miles said. “As I recall he’s 6-for-14, which is not what we want, and we had some guys wide open, certainly, but that was his first start -- his first playing time I should say -- and certainly performed well, to a point.”
Without question, he provided a punch that LSU’s offense lacked against Wisconsin and in much of the November 2015 slump that saw the Tigers lost three consecutive games. They finally achieved long-awaited offensive balance once Etling entered the game in Saturday's second quarter, picking up 100 yards through the air and 93 on the ground before halftime. And they did all of that without star running back Leonard Fournette, who sat out after re-injuring against Wisconsin the same left ankle he sprained in an August scrimmage.
“They were more honest to the pass whenever we switched quarterbacks. I picked up on that, too,” LSU running back Derrius Guice said of the change once Etling entered the game. “And they always overrun everything, so that was another thing, and we just had everybody spread it out, which was needed so they wouldn’t load the box.”
A loaded box is a common sight for LSU’s run-heavy offense with Fournette, and Harris’ inconsistency didn’t motivate many defenders to back away from the line of scrimmage. Etling was able to change that against Jacksonville State.
Remember, though, that this was an FCS opponent. Etling will almost certainly get a more significant chance to prove himself Saturday when LSU opens SEC play against Mississippi State (1-1, 1-0 SEC), even if Miles didn’t declare Etling his new starter a week in advance.
“We’ve got to get [Harris] comfortable and settled down and in the flow and I don’t know that that will happen,” Miles said. “It just kind of depends on how this quarterback competition plays out.”
For Etling’s part, he knows exactly how Harris feels at the moment. He went 2-10 as a starter at Purdue and lost his job to Austin Appleby in 2014, prompting his departure for LSU.
Facing those struggles in the public eye causes a quarterback to do his share of soul-searching.
“I’ve done a lot of introspective thinking, I guess, on that one,” Etling said. “I think it’s a mixture of things. Maybe I wasn’t ready when I first played. I kind of battled some injuries, as well. Maybe I wasn’t the best thing for the team at the time.
"But I think I’ve improved a lot and hopefully I can be what this team needs me to be.”