AUBURN, Ala. -- Zach Mettenberger had turned the ball over twice and been sacked twice in his first SEC road start, so with No. 2 LSU trying to put a too-close-for-comfort game with heavy underdog Auburn away, he faked a handoff to Spencer Ware, then rolled right then threw the ball back across the field.
Dangerous play, especially considering the night Mettenberger had. But instead of a disaster, Mettenberger fired a nail into Auburn's coffin.
His 33-yard completion to Ware helped LSU salt away the 12-10 win over upset-minded Auburn on a night when LSU couldn't seem to get out of its own way. It was perhaps a significant step for the Tigers that Mettenberger was entrusted to make the big play with the game on the line.
After the play fake, Mettenberger turned to throw to Ware across the field near the line of scrimmage. He saw Auburn linebacker Jonathan Evans had not been fooled and was closing in on Ware, so Mettenberger, whose big arm is supposed to make clutch throws down the field, used it to fire a fastball on a pass that barely crossed the line of scrimmage.
Ware caught it, turned around and made a move on Evans, who had not anticipated the pass getting there so quickly.
"I don't even remember [making the move]," Ware said. "At that point, it was just instinct."
It was just a slight sidestep to his right, but it was enough to get Ware free of Evans, who pounded the ground in disgust as Ware left him behind on his way to turning a third-and-4 at the LSU 33 to a first down at the Auburn 34 with 2:39 left.
"The way he threw it in," Miles said of Mettenberger's pass, "he made a real decision to put some heat on the ball and that's the reason Ware was able to advance it. If he put some air under the ball, the defense would have rallied and it's a gain, but not nearly the gain that it was."
Mettenberger had confidence that the play would work.
"I knew that it had potential to be a big play for us," he said. "Fortunately, it worked out. We had to have it because if they stopped it, it probably would have been a little different."
It was remarkable that LSU would put a decision of that magnitude on its junior quarterback, who had fumbled a snap away at the Auburn 3 in the first quarter (LSU slicked out by getting a safety) and allowed AU off the hook later in the first quarter when he tried to spin away from a sack by All-SEC defensive end Corey Lemonier, who stripped the ball from Mettenberger, setting up a TD that made a game of it.
In four college starts, Mettenberger has four turnovers -- three in the red zone -- and a knack for letting teams off the hook.
But instead of shying away from the quarterback who has made so many early young mistakes, LSU chose to put the onus on him to make a play. The last Mettenberger throw in a rather pedestrian 15-for-27, 169-yard passing night was a huge one.
"Gotta give that to [offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa]," Miles said. "Good touch. Nice call. And Zach, it took some character to make that play."
There were drops, sacks and mistakes. There were also moments, like the pass to Ware, when LSU's offensive upside showed. It's been this way throughout the young season for Mettenberger and LSU's passing game.
Mettenberger had red zone turnovers against North Texas and Idaho, both allowing the opponent to stay close after LSU had come close to delivering early knockout blows. In both of those games, the Tigers pulled away anyway.
This time, when Mettenberger turned the ball over with his second fumble, LSU was up 9-0 and seemed on its way to delivering an early TKO. Instead, AU was let off the hook and unlike UNT and Idaho, took advantage to make it a 60-minute game.
"I think a lot of these guys know we haven't played our best, complete, game yet," Mettenberger said.
If and when that happens, it will involve Mettenberger being called on to make a play. Even on a night like Saturday, when he looked so young and so vulnerable in his first SEC road game, he was ready to deliver a play for the win.