TAMPA — If you want to know what to expect from freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings during Wednesday’s Outback Bowl game against Iowa, you need to go back to the last pass he threw this season for LSU.
It was a pass play called “Tsunami,” and it hadn’t been called all season.
Yet LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron let Jennings run the play even though he’d just taken over for injured starter Zach Mettenberger and was in the midst of engineering a 99-yard touchdown drive that completed a frantic fourth-quarter rally.
All Jennings did was connect with Travin Dural for a 49-yard touchdown pass on third-and-10 with 1 minute, 15 seconds remaining to push LSU past four-touchdown underdog Arkansas on Nov. 29 for a 31-27 victory.
“I think a lot of people around the program who don’t see Anthony practice on a daily basis would have been surprised, but for us, we wouldn’t put him in there if we didn’t think he was capable of doing that,” LSU running back Jeremy Hill said.
With Mettenberger out with a season-ending knee injury, Jennings, 19, will join Matt Flynn as the only quarterbacks in LSU history to make his first career start in a bowl game. He’ll face Iowa’s seventh-ranked defense having seen limited playing time during eight games. He completed six of 10 passes for 99 yards and that one legend-in-the-making touchdown. He rushed 11 times for 23 yards and another score.
“We’re going to assume that he’s good,” Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens said.
Added Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, “LSU’s got a lot of very good players. The fact that he became the No. 2 guy tells you the caliber of talent he’s got.”
Because he is a freshman, Jennings will not be available to the media until after the bowl game. His teammates spoke for him Friday during LSU’s media session at the Westin Harbour Island Hotel, the Tigers’ headquarters for the game.
“Anthony has prepared this whole season as if he’s a starter,” Hill said. “This is nothing new for him. Having practiced that way the whole season has allowed him to take this week even easier than it had been before. There’s no pressure on him. He’s surrounded by leaders and savvy veteran guys. If he needs any help with the offense, we can help him.”
Jennings will have had 12 practices since the season ended heading into the Outback Bowl, a dozen opportunities to work with the first team and become more comfortable in the offense.
Whether that gives LSU an advantage or Iowa a disadvantage on game day remains to be seen. Ferentz said he expects to see the same offense LSU has run all season, and Tigers coach Les Miles said there hasn’t been enough time to tailor anything to better suit Jennings’ skills.
“There’s no mystery at this point,” Miles said. “Your team is who they are. They’ve developed this personality. I’d hate to take it away from them.”
Besides, Jennings’ teammates said Friday the kid can handle himself.
“Anthony is a great passer, and I think he’s going to show his arm talent in this game, and I think our coaches are going to give him an opportunity to do so,” Hill said. “We’re all looking forward to seeing Anthony step up in a big bowl game, go out there, have fun and play loose.”
Few things instill confidence in your teammates more than a 99-yard drive in the waning minutes with the team down 27-24 to stave off what would have been an embarrassing loss to an Arkansas team that was winless in conference play.
Jennings dived into the line for 2 yards on the first play. He then connected with tight end Dillon Gordon for 16 yards.
Hill said getting that first down was all the confidence the offense needed to know Jennings was capable of taking the Tigers on an epic drive.
“We knew we were going to score, at least get a field goal,” Hill said.
Watching from the sideline, LSU defensive end Jermauria Rasco said he wasn’t expecting much from Jennings.
“A 99-yard drive from a freshman in a big game? Honestly, no. But other guys thought otherwise,” Rasco said. “I didn’t think it was going to end that way, but at the same time everyone had confidence, because he does it every day in practice. To step up, starting on the 1-yard line, it was an eye-opener for me.”
That drive, and a few more plays earlier in the season, are all Iowa’s defense has to go on, but Ferentz said it shows what the Hawkeyes are up against.
“He took the football from the 1-foot line to the other end zone and showed good athleticism, got the ball to the open guys and really did a nice job,” Ferentz said. “The No. 1 thing for a quarterback to do is move the team and score, and he did that.”