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LSU unfazed by quarterback change

LSU freshman Anthony Jennings enters late against Arkansas but leads the Tigers 99 yards to a winning touchdown.
LSU freshman Anthony Jennings enters late against Arkansas but leads the Tigers 99 yards to a winning touchdown.
Published Dec. 28, 2013

TAMPA — As linebacker D.J. Welter stood on the sideline at Tiger Stadium, he was nervous — about the outcome of the game, but also for his true freshman teammate who was thrust into action on that November day as LSU trailed Arkansas late in its regular-season finale.

On an earlier fourth-quarter play, a 32-yard pass from LSU senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger to Jarvis Landry, Mettenberger went down with a season-ending knee injury and was replaced by Anthony Jennings.

Jennings, just 2-for-3 passing until that point, had just three minutes to march his team, trailing 27-24, down the field.

"Some of the guys I was talking to on the sideline were like, 'What do you think is going to happen?' " Welter recalled. "I was like, 'I kind of feel good about this.' "

All season, Welter watched the kid with "quiet confidence" prepare as if he were the starter, only to sit on the bench and watch Mettenberger, an NFL prospect, lead the way on game day.

Now that it was his turn, Jennings took the moment and ran with it. Jennings capped an eight-play, 99-yard drive with a 49-yard touchdown pass, more than doubling the passing yards with which he entered the game, to Travin Dural with just more than a minute remaining.

Then-No. 15 LSU (9-3) escaped with a 31-27 win against Arkansas, but the Tigers also left with the utmost confidence in their new starter.

That faith in Jennings will be tested Wednesday when he starts an Outback Bowl matchup against Iowa (8-4). The Hawkeyes have the seventh-ranked defense in Division I-A.

Facing a rookie quarterback with not much more than a quarter of experience (6-for-10 for 99 yards) might be a blessing to opposing coaches. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't see it like that.

"It didn't work so well for Arkansas from what I understand," Ferentz said. "The fact that he performed the way he did when he was called upon, that tells you an awful lot."

Jennings' composure in the biggest moment of a must-win game didn't surprise LSU coach Les Miles. Jennings is a hard worker and mobile in the pocket. But Miles said his quarterback's poise might be his best trait.

It's something he will continue to employ while replacing Mettenberger, who amassed 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns. Jennings' coaches insist he's more than prepared for the challenge.

"I think the thing we have to remember, and he has to remember in his development, is that he's not out there by himself," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "He's a facilitator. He's got to pick and choose where he can be dynamic, because he's such a good athlete."

That athleticism has served the Tigers well as they prepare for Iowa. LSU coaches and players insist that the game plan, one that has helped the Tigers average nearly 466 yards, will be the same despite the change at quarterback.

LSU leading rusher Jeremy Hill doesn't expect an increase in touches Wednesday. A pass-heavy yet balanced offense got LSU this far, and new quarterback or not, that's what the Tigers will stick to, he said.

"If you get in a bowl game and try to change up everything you've been doing for the entirety of the fall, that's a recipe for disaster," Hill said. "(We're) just continuing on the things we've been doing that we've done successfully and letting Anthony find his place."