BATON ROUGE, La. – It hardly mattered that LSU's normally overpowering running game amassed only half of its usual average against Mississippi State.
Suddenly sizzling LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger more than made up for it with a second straight performance approaching the 300-yard plateau in a 37-17 victory over the sinking Bulldogs on Saturday night, a result that moved the Tigers up to No. 8 and dropped Mississippi State out of the AP Top 25 Poll.
The way Mettenberger has been throwing the ball lately, the Tigers find themselves on one hand looking forward to next year while at the same time wondering what could have been this year if it hadn't taken the talented quarterback and his young receiver corps eight games to get the passing game going.
"I would have loved for our whole season to have been like the past two games but unfortunately it hasn't been. Luckily we're figuring it out. Hopefully we can keep that momentum rolling for the rest of the games," Mettenberger said. "It's hard not to look ahead for next year just with the talent we've got coming back. But at the same time, we've got a game against Ole Miss next week and that's our primary concern right now."
LSU's only two losses this season came by single digits to teams currently ranked in the top seven, No. 4 Alabama and No. 7 Florida.
Against the Gators, LSU managed only 158 yards through the air. Mettenberger was intercepted once and did not have a touchdown.
Two games ago against Alabama, LSU's passing game finally came alive in the second half, which was good enough to give the Tigers a late 17-14 lead before Alabama pulled back ahead in the final minute.
Change the result of either one of those tight games, and LSU is still realistically in the picture for both Southeastern Conference and national titles. Instead, the Tigers are longshots on both fronts. Only a three-way tie with Texas A&M and Alabama in the SEC West gets the Tigers to the league title game in Atlanta. For that to happen, struggling Auburn would have to stage a stunning Iron Bowl upset over the Crimson Tide two weekends from now.
Otherwise, LSU is playing out the string in hopes of a major bowl and otherwise building for 2013, when the Tigers will likely enter yet another season as a projected national title contender.
In any event, LSU coach Les Miles predicted his team would be playing its best football of the current campaign from now until bowl season, regardless of where the Tigers end up.
"We are just catching speed. We are just getting the pace that we need," Miles said. "Our football team will take pride, effort and energy to improve."
All season long, the Tigers insisted their passing game looked great in practice, and they were somewhat befuddled as to why that didn't translate consistently in games. All the while, the criticism of Mettenberger built, and it began to look as though he might have been overhyped.
"I can't say enough about Zach. The things that he's done and overcame these past few weeks, about all the criticism, I can't say enough about him," said LSU receiver Jarvis Landry, who had career highs of nine catches and 109 yards against the Bulldogs. "His confidence level is really high right now."
Mettenberger said the combination of a young receiving corps, constant flux along a banged-up offensive line and his own growing pains often left LSU narrowly missing big plays through the air. It was either a missed block, a missed step on a pass route, a dropped ball or a throw where the timing was just a little off, he'd say.
He repeatedly suggested that the passing game was not far off from being exceptional, and he said he did not let the criticism discourage him. He had already learned to deal with such things when his alleged groping of a woman in a bar led to legal trouble and his dismissal from Georgia as a redshirt freshman in the spring of 2010. That forced him to work his way back to the SEC through the junior college route, and now it seems he is finally on the cusp of fulfilling his promise.
"You play at a big-time program, there's a lot of expectations, not only for myself, but for everybody," Mettenberger said. "I've always said I'm a guy who can take the criticism. I'd rather me get criticized than some other guys on this team. I don't want them to go through that. Just from my past and being through all that I've been through, I feel like I can handle it. Luckily we're making plays and the critics are backing off a little bit."