STARKVILLE, Miss. – Stopping No. 9 LSU becomes much more complicated now that the Tigers have shown they can throw the football.
Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) hopes to have it figured out when the Bulldogs play at LSU (7-2, 3-2) on Saturday.
LSU lost a 21-17 heartbreaker against No. 1 Alabama last weekend, but the Tigers revealed a much more balanced offense in the process.
Junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger completed 24 of 35 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown in the best performance of his career. The Tigers rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit and nearly shocked the defending national champions.
At times, Alabama's defense looked stunned that LSU could suddenly throw. Even Tiger fans in Death Valley seemed surprised.
Mettenberger — who has taken plenty of heat this season for LSU's mediocre passing offense — was one of the few who always believed.
"It's just taken awhile for us to get to that level, I guess," Mettenberger said. "When it came down to it, we just came out there and executed the best we have all year. All 11 guys more times than not were doing the right thing every time. That's something that we should have had all year."
Mettenberger's improvement makes LSU's offense much more unpredictable.
While the Tigers have been among the nation's elite for the past several seasons, the book on how to stop their offense wasn't complicated. If LSU couldn't run, it couldn't score.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said that's not the case anymore.
"I didn't see them change a whole lot. I just saw them execute a lot better," Mullen said. Mettenberger "got hot, he was accurate and they were making a lot of plays and that led to the night he had."
Mississippi State's secondary — which is led by seniors Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield and Darius Slay — has been one of the best in the SEC over the past couple seasons. But they've been exposed the past few weeks, giving up big gains in losses to both Alabama and Texas A&M.
LSU is the third straight top 15 team the Bulldogs have faced in three weeks.
Mississippi State linebacker Cameron Lawrence said the defense must respect Mettenberger's ability to throw — especially after the Alabama performance — but he doesn't expect LSU to get away from its power running game that's proven so successful over the past few seasons.
The Tigers average more than 200 yards on the ground and five backs have at least 250 rushing yards this season.
"LSU is going to put a lot of guys in the box," Lawrence said. "They've got a big, bruiser fullback. Me personally, I like that kind of game. Smash mouth and downhill running."
But there's little question that LSU's ability to throw makes them an entirely different team.
The Tigers have several gifted receivers like Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr., but haven't always been able to use them. Landry leads the Tigers with 31 receptions while Beckham, Jr. is the big play threat. He's averaging 16.4 yards per catch.
"From here on out we want to put our foot down and make a statement against the rest of these teams and show that we can move the ball on the ground and through the air," Landry said.
Mettenberger said there's no reason that can't happen. Throwing for nearly 300 yards against the nation's top-ranked team means the Tigers should be able to do it against anyone.
"It's amazing when everybody does the right job," Mettenberger said. "You really get a rhythm going, and it's contagious. Everybody on the offense starts feeling it. And when things start clicking and rolling, it's tough to stop any offense."
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this story.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP