BATON ROUGE, La. -- With No. 3 LSU leading winless Idaho by 28 points late in the third quarter of what was eventually a 63-14 Tigers win Saturday night at Tiger Stadium, it was the time in a game when one starts looking for backup quarterback Stephen Rivers to relieve starting Zach Mettenberger.
Not only did Mettenberger remain in the game for the Tigers, they came out in a shotgun formation with three wide receivers and the LSU quarterback went to work, delivering five crisp passes, all completions, for 77 yards to lead an 87-yard touchdown drive. His 46-yard bomb to Odell Beckham, a splendid rainbow that covered most of the yards in the air, was perhaps the prettiest pass in his three games as a starter.
The message on the drive was clear: LSU knows it needs to fine tune the passing game of Mettenberger if it's to compete for the national title it craves. It was out to get some of that work done.
"We wanted to throw some passes that he will be involved in," Miles said of the drive. "And we did."
Was he satisfied with what he saw?
"Yeah," Miles said. "Overall, there are ways to improve, certainly, but overall, he did well."
That Mettenberger played well into the fourth quarter on a night when he was 17-for-22 for 222 yards and two touchdowns in a 49-point win showed the urgency LSU senses in getting the junior who's just three starts into his college career and a week away from his SEC debut at Auburn, improved and ready for bigger challenges down the road (can you say Alabama?).
On this night, there were plenty of examples when improvement was needed. Like in the second quarter when, with LSU already up 14-0 and ready to deliver an early knockout blow at the Vandals' 6-yard line, Mettenberger forced a pass into coverage and right into the arms of Idaho safety Gary Walker, who took the gift 94 yards the other way to the Tigers 5, setting up an Idaho touchdown.
It was the second time this season that Mettenberger got an opponent off the hook with a red zone interception. In the season opener against North Texas, he threw a similar pass in almost exactly the same spot on the field, and it was also intercepted, giving North Texas a momentary reprieve in what was eventually a 41-14 LSU win.
They are the only two interceptions so far this season for the 6-foot-5 Georgian, but they are passes he can ill afford to throw as the Tigers start facing tougher competition.
"If I don't throw that interception in the red zone, we are up 21-0," said Mettenberger of the Idaho interception. "Throwing that interception really gave them life and I put the first half solely on myself."
He didn't dwell on it. Instead, he put it in perspective.
"Crap's going to happen," he said. "It's all in how you react."
He reacted by completing 13 of his final 14 passes, getting the offense rolling in the second half and continuing a hot start for the Tigers, whose 48.3 scoring average leads the SEC.
The passing game remains a secondary function in the LSU offense. The Tigers are 10th in the league in passing yards and only Florida and Alabama have thrown fewer passes than the Tigers, who also have the SEC's best rush offense.
There are signs that LSU's offense could strike a balance.
Mettenberger is two bad red zone passes away from an outstanding start to the season. He's completed 48 of 66 passes, a healthy 72.7 percent completion rate that should be better if not for five drops in last week's 41-3 shellacking over Washington. He's thrown four touchdowns and, on a run-first team, he's getting them 203 yards a game in the air.
He thinks the Tigers are just scratching the surface
"The sky's the limit for us," Mettenberger said. "Right now, we are right at 75 percent completion percentage, which is huge for us. We are showing [Miles] that when we do throw, we can complete balls. I just have to minimize the picks in the red zone that I had in the first week and this week.
"If we can keep progressing like we did tonight -- Idaho stopped the run a bit and made us throw -- hopefully, we'll have more balance."