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LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. (Associated Press)

LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. (Associated Press)

Mettenberger, sixth-ranked Tigers ready for return to Georgia

Last Modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 10:19 PM

By Scooter Hobbs / American Press

Zach Mettenberger says it’s just another game, this tussle at Georgia on Saturday.

He says it a with a straight face.

He’s almost convincing.

Even LSU teammates say they see no difference in their quarterback this week.

That’s their hope at least.

And that would be just about perfect. The Mettenberger they’ve seen thus far has put an up-and-down junior season behind him, guided a rejuvenated LSU offense to historic levels, kept the sixth-ranked Tigers unbeaten at 4-0 and, in the process, based on some NFL websites, greatly improved his stock for life after college.

Jeremy Hill has returned to become clearly one of the best backs in the SEC, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckman might give LSU the best 1-2 receiving punch in the conference, but the talk of the Tigers has been the new-and-improved Mettenberger.

He’s given the LSU offense a sparkle not seen since the 2007 national championship season, getting a little redemption along the way.

Funny, though, he’d just as soon not be the focus this week in the build-up to the Tigers’ first true Southeastern Conference showdown.

“There’s so much put into this game that has nothing to do with the game that will go (on) between the snap and the whistle,” Mettenberger said. “It’s just another game. It’s kind of unfair the situation my teammates and family are being put in.

“Too much is being made of that. I’m just excited to go into another SEC opponent’s stadium.”

But, of course, this is not just “another” stadium. This is Sanford Stadium, where Mettenberger always dreamed and later assumed he’d be quarterbacking “Between the Hedges.”

He just never thought he’d be wearing purple and gold.

His mother, Tammy, has worked in the Georgia football office for 14 years, since he was barely more than a toddler and he spent a fair amount of time toddling around the football building and the stadium.

A hot-shot recruit, he of course signed with the Bulldogs, spent the 2009 season as a redshirt, then was battling with current Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray for the starting job in the spring of 2010.

Then came the life-changing moment that ended with Georgia coach Mark Richt having to boot the son of his administrative assistant off the team.

Mettenberger got too aggressive while chatting up a female patron in a bar and, after charges were filed, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual assault.

His timing was awful. Any other time, after the legal issues were settled, he might have gotten off with a brief suspension and a lot of extra running. But Georgia had just been through a rash of legal run-ins, for which Richt was catching some heat.

There weren’t going to be any second chances.

“It was very difficult,” Richt said this week. “It’s difficult … any time you have to dismiss a guy from the team. To do it to Zach, having known Zach for as long as we’ve known him and his mom and dad — they’re family to us. They’re still family to the Georgia program, so it was very difficult.

“I think he understood. It wasn’t easy for me, it wasn’t easy for him.”

It no doubt led to some awkward moments in the football office.

But Mettenberger made the best of it. He spent 2010 lighting up secondaries at Butler (Kan.) Community College, throwing for 32 touchdowns with two interceptions.

After signing with LSU, he seemed content to wait his turn and watch Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee struggle through an undefeated regular season.

He had his own struggles with the starting job last year.

But now he’s the first LSU quarterback in history to throw for 250 yards in the first four games of a season and the first to have tossed 10 touchdown passes.

“He has earned so much with us,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “He is so accountable, so committed, giving great effort and leadership.”

But this week will be different.

“I don’t expect a warm welcome,” Mettenberger smiled.

Richt gave Mom Mettenberger the week off from work, last week, too. The opposing quarterback will be an old friend, Aaron Murray, who leads the SEC in pass efficiency, just ahead of Mettenberger.

“I keep in touch with him,” Mettenberger said. “Every now and then I’ll text him. We’re good buddies.”

“I’m sure he’s tired of talking about it,” Murray said.

“I’m proud of how he responded,” said Richt, who added that he wishes Mettenberger nothing but the best every week except this one.

“That’s what you hope for and dream for when these guys have an issue. Sometimes when these guys have issues, we can clean it and he can have a great story here at Georgia. But sometimes they have to leave.

“Some things like that happen, and they have success and it makes you feel good.”

Mettenberger said he feels fine, too. Maybe it all worked out for the best.

“I fell in love with LSU when I came here,” Mettenberger said. “The environment, the atmosphere, it’s everything you heard about.

“My life has ended up here at LSU and I couldn’t be happier. I’m proud to wear the purple and yellow, proud to be a Tiger.”

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