ATHENS, Ga. — Saturday’s Southeastern Conference battle between No. 6 Louisiana State and No. 9 Georgia started well enough for Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger as he won the pre-game coin toss and threw touchdown passes on his team’s first two offensive possessions.
However, the former Oconee County standout would have preferred a different ending as the Bulldogs’ defense held on LSU’s final chance with the ball and escaped with a 44-41 shootout victory at Sanford Stadium.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Mettenberger insisted Saturday’s game was no different from any other collegefootball matchup he’s been involved in, despite the dramatic implications of his return to Athens.
In the spring of 2010, Mettenberger was enmeshed in a three-way competition to be Georgia’s starting quarterback before being dismissed from the team. But he said that well-worn story line did not have any effect on his game.
“It was just another game,” said Mettenberger, who counts several Georgia players – Aaron Murray, Arthur Lynch and Blake Sailors among them – as close friends. “We didn’t put too much stock into it. For myself and my teammates, it was just another game for us.”
For the day, Mettenberger completed 23 of 37 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns, but neither he nor his teammates could muster much traction on their final drive of the night, which started moments after Murray connected with Justin Scott-Wesley on a 25-yard touchdown pass that ultimately won the game.
“It was just like every other drive – go down and score and put ourselves in the best position to win the game,” he said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to connect on a few more passes there at the end, but Georgia came in with a big game plan and played well.”
LSU coach Les Miles said Mettenberger, who is now 14-4 as a starter and went over the 4,000-yard career passing mark on Saturday, did exactly what the Tigers needed him to do.
“I want you to know something,” said Miles, barely speaking above a whisper after the game. “Zach came in here to play quarterback for the Tigers and to try to lead his team to victory. And that is what he did. Was he perfect? No, but he was good. We like him as our quarterback.”
And now that the game is over, Mettenberger – who led LSU to an impressive 11 of 15 third-down conversions – picked up a few admirers from the Bulldogs camp.
“He did good – he showed he’s a pocket passer and he can really sling it,” Georgia nose guard Garrison Smith said. “He did what I expected. He’s a talented guy and he did a good job tonight.”
“Mettenberger is a hellacious quarterback,” added outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who recorded a quarterback sack and a pass break-up on Saturday. “He’s a playmaker. He was making plays when we had three guys about to hit him. He’s definitely an NFL quarterback. He sits in the pocket and he’s not afraid to get hit – he’s definitely a playmaker.”
Perhaps the greatest words of praise from the enemy came from Georgia coach Mark Richt, who had to make the difficult decision to dismiss Mettenberger (whose mother Tammy works as an administrative assistant in the Bulldogs football office) three years ago.
“I got a chance to give him a hug and I told him the same thing I told Murray – I’m really proud of you,” Richt said. “They’re both great players and I’m proud of how they both played today. You couldn’t have asked either one of those players to play any better than they did today.
“There are some proud father-type feelings towards both of them. We recruited them both and we signed them both and we knew both were going to be special players. And as fate would have it, they got to play against each other between the hedges in a phenomenal shootout where they both played their tails off. It was pretty impressive.”
Earlier in the week, Mettenberger said he’d be glad when the Georgia game was in his rear-view mirror and assented that despite the loss, he felt a load lifted off his shoulders.
“I’m glad it’s over – the spotlight and the media attention that was on me for things that were not related to football were a lot to ask my teammates to deal with,” he said. “Now we can move on and turn our focus to the rest of the season and return to playing football. As a football player, you have to keep the mindset of playing football. As Coach Miles says, all the outside noise is just outside noise and you’ve got to keep it on the perimeter.”