- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Zach Mettenberger was too quick on his first pass attempt Saturday night.
LSU's senior quarterback spun quickly to his right and rushed to plant his foot as he attempted to fire a pass to Odell Beckham Jr. on the outside. The ball skipped carelessly at the receiver's feet. Mettenberger shook his head, kicking himself for the mistake. With the UAB defender playing off-coverage, it would have been an easy pickup of 5 or more yards and, more importantly, a first down. Instead, it was now third down and 5 yards to go with the punter waiting impatiently on the sidelines. A familiar groan swept through Tiger Stadium -- not again.
It was a snapshot of the old Zach Mettenberger, another über-talented quarterback leaving too many opportunities wasted on the football field. He had all the tools -- good height, good size, a good arm -- but inconsistency plagued his career from Georgia to Butler Community College to LSU. Les Miles and the coaching staff had seen it before, flip-flopping between similarly troubled quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee from 2010-11. They thought Mettenberger would be the one to break the chain last season, but he was too inaccurate and too careless with the football. His 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions wound up placing him 12th out of 13 passers in the SEC in ESPN's Adjusted Quarterback Rating, which accounts for key factors like down, distance, field position, as well as the time and score of the game.
But that was 2012, Mettenberger's first full season starting and Greg Strudawa's second year as LSU's play-caller and quarterbacks coach. That combination failed as the Tigers offense floundered, punctuated by a disappointing 25-24 loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
This is 2013. After failing to complete his first pass against UAB, Mettenberger went back to work the very next play, stepping into a throw that whistled 13 yards over the middle to Tarvin Dural for a first down. The crowd cheered and Tiger Stadium settled in for what would be the best passing night of Mettenberger's career. If last season is what it took for Mettenberger to get to this, then everyone could accept that. He's now 18th nationally in QBR and No. 1 in the SEC.
"If you watch Zach throw the football, he's throwing it with so much confidence," Miles said after the 56-17 win. "He knows where it's supposed to go."
Mettenberger showed all the tell-tale signs of confidence against UAB: He made quick decisions, stepped into passes and didn't mind throwing the ball into coverage. He wound up passing for 282 yards and set a school record with five touchdowns, the first three of which went into double coverage. On his first touchdown, he threw the ball before Beckham broke on his route and fit it narrowly between two defensive backs for the score. He did the same exact thing with Beckham for his second touchdown, and on the third scoring pass he inched the ball just over a leaping safety's hands and into the outstretched arms of Jarvis Landry. They were risky throws, but they were thrown perfectly.
For so long LSU's offense has been risk averse, opting to run the football even in passing situations. The Tigers were 92nd nationally in passing a season ago and have not ranked higher than 71st since 2008.
But this year appears to be different. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has Mettenberger and the offense going a new direction: vertical. And it wasn't just against an overmatched UAB squad. LSU did the same thing to 20th-ranked TCU in the season opener two weeks ago. Mettenberger was 16 of 32 passing for 251 yards and a touchdown against the Horned Frogs, which in itself wasn't overly impressive. But a closer inspection saw the Tigers push the ball downfield with 19 plays of 10 or more yards, compared to the 11.46 it averaged a season ago.
Through two games, an even odder trend has formed, though: LSU is passing to set up the run, not the other way around.
"Here in the past couple of years we've been very good at the run," Mettenberger said. "Teams are coming in trying to load the box on us, and this year when we take our shots we're hitting them. That's something we've all been working on."
Mettenberger said he couldn't remember a specific time where he realized this year would be different, but it could have been the first time he met his new offensive coordinator.
"Meeting [Cameron] got me really excited about the potential because I knew what talent we had," he said. "When he first told me about the X's and O's and everything, I got really excited because potentially this can be one of the best offenses LSU has had in recent years."
Beckham, who had a career night against UAB with five catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns, has been thrilled with the trio he, Landry and Mettenberger have formed, calling it a "dream come true." Together they've combined for 23 receptions, 434 yards and six touchdowns through the air, already only one touchdown off last year's total.
And Beckham said the first two games are only the start.
"Zach is going to be a great quarterback," he said. "As the year develops, he's going to develop.
"I'm looking forward to being a part of it. It's a great start for him."
7dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough