University of Florida

Battle of ex-Purdue QBs could determine UF’s SEC East fate

Florida quarterback Austin Appleby (12) celebrates with fans after defeating South Carolina 20-7 in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Gainesville, Fla.
Florida quarterback Austin Appleby (12) celebrates with fans after defeating South Carolina 20-7 in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Gainesville, Fla. AP

Call it the Purdue Bowl.

Or the Battle of the Boilermakers.

Whatever the nomenclature, Saturday’s matchup at Tiger Stadium between No. 16 LSU and No. 21 Florida will feature two former Purdue quarterbacks going head-to-head in a Southeastern Conference showdown.

In one corner of the bout is Florida’s Austin Appleby, a graduate transfer about to make his second consecutive start and fourth overall for the Gators (7-2, 5-2 SEC, No. 23 in College Football Playoff rankings).

In the other corner is LSU’s Danny Etling, a redshirt junior who has started the past seven games for the Tigers (6-3, 4-2 SEC, No. 16 CFP).

And if that’s not enough of a story line on its own, this game — already delayed over a month and moved from Gainesville to Baton Rouge after the Oct. 8 matchup was postponed because of the potential threat of Hurricane Matthew — will play a heavy hand in determining Florida’s fate in the SEC East.

In simplest terms, the Gators will wrap up the division title with a win in Death Valley. If they lose, they will need Tennessee to lose to either Missouri or Vanderbilt in order to back into the SEC Championship Game against No. 1 Alabama on Dec. 3.

“That is kind of bizarre, isn’t it?” UF coach Jim McElwain said.

Appleby said the two are in a group text with current Purdue quarterback David Blough, and the trio sends messages and good thoughts to each other before games.

“We’re not mortal enemies,” Appleby said.

And while Appleby and Etling aren’t putting up numbers like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees — Purdue’s and the Big Ten’s all-time leader in just about every passing statistic — the two have held their own in their brief experience in the SEC.

Appleby has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 671 yards and has five touchdowns to just two interceptions in three starts, all coming when regular starter Luke Del Rio was injured. When he wasn’t the starter, Appleby devoted his time on the bench to ensuring he was up to speed on the playbook and working with Del Rio to ensure the offense was the best it could be.

“It would be easy for somebody to say, ‘To heck with this. I’m going to sit at the end of the bench and pout.’ That’s not who I am,” Appleby said. “That’s not the way I was raised. I owe it to my teammates to be ready.”

The 6-4, 240-pound quarterback went 17 for 21 in Florida’s 20-7 win against South Carolina last Saturday, his first start since Oct. 1.

The offense moved well under Appleby against South Carolina, and the final score Saturday could have been higher if not for a string of three first-half drives that ended in turnovers — two of which were Appleby’s responsibility. The first was a fumble inside the red zone, his second of the season. The other was an interception on a deflected pass.

McElwain said, turnovers aside, “Austin played the way you need to play.”

On the other side, Etling — who was Appleby’s backup when the two were at Purdue — has thrown for 1,378 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions in an offense that prioritizes the running game.

“All we [tell] Danny to do is manage the game and be efficient with his throws,” LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron told reporters on Monday, “and once he does that, we can put the ball in our playmakers’ hands.”

That plan has worked for the Tigers, who rank second in the SEC and 14th nationally in yards per play (6.71).

“Whoever recruited them [at Purdue] did a good job,” Orgeron said on Wednesday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference. “It’s an unusual situation, but we’re happy to have Danny, and I know that Coach McElwain’s happy to have Austin. They’re both very good quarterbacks.”

And on Saturday, they’ll meet again.

“It’s obviously been a crazy year,” Etling said. “What’s one more coincidence?”