BATON ROUGE, La. — Leonard Fournette said Saturday night that he doesn’t like when people compare him and Derrius Guice.
So I’m going to placate Fournette in the most semantic way possible. I won’t compare him and Guice. I’m going to contrast them.
If you go back and rewatch LSU’s 38-21 win over Ole Miss from Saturday night, it’s hard not to think of the running backs as the standout performers, especially Fournette. (SEC Country’s Sam Spiegelman has an entire article devoted to breaking down Fournette’s record-breaking game.) But they do it in such different ways.
Fournette makes everything look easy. Hitting holes? Easy. Stiff-arming defenders? Easy. Making freshmen defensive backs look like fools? Easy. Fournette’s innate athleticism makes it look as if he’s gliding through the game effortlessly, like a high school senior getting junior varsity reps.
But Guice? Guice doesn’t make anything look easy. Every shimmy and every shake, every 12-yard stretch and every 3-yard dive, Guice shows you how hard he’s running. He doesn’t go around defenders or through defenders like Fournette, he moves in a way that makes defenders question whether they’ve left our world and entered into some ethereal plane of alternate existence.
Is one strategy better than the other? No. A missed tackle is a missed tackle and a 10-yard gain is a 10-yard gain and a touchdown is a touchdown. But putting on the tape gives you an advanced appreciation of just how much better than everyone else Fournette is. The only player in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night who was on Fournette’s level was Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.
But that’s enough prose disguised as poetry. Let’s break down some film.
What happened on that first drive?
As is becoming something of a tradition, the LSU defense looked dreadful on the first drive of the game, only to turn bulletproof as the game went on.
That first drive, however meaningless it turned out to be, was a clinic on what not to do in coverage, and why trust and communication are so important against a tempo offense.
Ole Miss moves quickly, and it’s hard for a defense to communicate its coverage schemes when it barely has time to catch its breath. This is why LSU cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Kevin Tolliver, the players circled in purple in the above screenshot, messed up to the tune of a 50-yard completion.
Both White and Tolliver followed Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly’s eyes on this play, jumping on the underneath route to the receiver circled in red. This decision proved disastrous, as Kelly looked off the defenders and dropped a pass deep to an uncovered Damore’ea Stringfellow, circled in yellow. This set Ole Miss up just outside the LSU red zone, where Kelly once again preyed on LSU’s expectations.
On this play, Kelly rolled out of the pocket and looked like he had his eyes on tight end Evan Engram, his favorite target. Safety Jamal Adams, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and White, perhaps LSU’s three best and most experienced defenders, all bit on the potential of Engram in space, rolling with Kelly.
Wide receiver Van Jefferson, who was in traffic between White and Adams, used the defenders’ over-the-top roll against them, staying put and finding free space in the secondary. Kelly noticed this and connected with Jefferson, who took the pass 15 yards for an Ole Miss touchdown.
Speed kills. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. The way Ole Miss beat LSU? Sheer, uncontrollable tempo. Ole Miss went fast enough to force LSU’s defenders into making split-second decisions and feasting when those decisions were wrong.
But LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, surely a keener observer of the happenings on a football field than I, settled his defense down after that. Which leads me to …
How did the LSU defense settle down?
Tempo offenses are like that friend you had in high school who always read ahead and did his homework two weeks before it was due. When everything is going according to plan, he’s a superstar. He’s prepared and he isn’t afraid to flaunt how ready he is. But the second the teacher deviates from the syllabus even for a second, this kid’s whole life falls apart.
That’s what happened to the Ole Miss offense. One small issue would present itself, and instead of adjusting and moving on, Ole Miss would grind its heels in and try to force through the issue instead of correcting it.
Mistakes are one thing. Ole Miss overcame mistakes, like when Kelly threw an interception on a pass that even Brett Favre would’ve deemed too risky. But what Ole Miss couldn’t overcome was a personnel deficiency.
When starting left tackle Rod Taylor went down with an injury, the Ole Miss offense collapsed. LSU pass rush specialist Arden Key turned into the Tasmanian Devil and whipped Taylor’s replacements, forcing Ole Miss to keep Engram in as an extra blocker more often than it wanted. And without Engram out in space, Kelly found himself forcing more and more passes into good coverage.
The cycle repeated until there was no time left on the clock and LSU had thoroughly demoralized Ole Miss’ offense into submission.
The forgotten play of the game
Leonard Fournette’s first touchdown Saturday was an absolute beauty. But it was made possible only because of a veteran play made by a veteran pass catcher.
With the Tigers facing a 2nd-and-15 on their own 20-yard line, Travin Dural turned a halfhearted play-action pass into the deep breath LSU needed. Up to this point, LSU had run 7 plays for 6 yards. Fournette wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was Guice. The offense needed a spark.
Enter Dural, who broke open for 21 yards on a 15-yard middle curl, giving the Tigers a fresh set of downs on their own 41. One play later, Fournette announced his return to the world in a stunning fashion.
But if Dural doesn’t make this play, Fournette doesn’t make his. No way LSU hands off the ball on a 3rd-and-15 from its own 20. So next time you see Dural, be sure to thank him. Especially if your name happens to be Leonard Fournette.
Fine, I’ll talk about the running backs a little
All week, Ed Orgeron promised that he’d find ways to get Fournette and Guice onto the field at the same time. And he came through on that promise from the very beginning, using Guice as a slot receiver on the game’s first play.
But the most interesting and effective use of both backs came not at the beginning of the first quarter, but the end.
On the last play of the first quarter (pictured), LSU lined up in an offset I-formation with two wide receivers bunched on the wide side of the field. Fournette, highlighted in blue, set up as LSU’s fullback with Guice lined up at tailback.
LSU quarterback Danny Etling dropped back with his two wide receivers crashing inside on narrow routes. Fournette played off these routes by settling in the flat the receivers had vacated. Etling connected with Fournette, but not until after Guice saved the play by picking up a rogue blitzer with a strong backfield block. The play went for 22 yards and was punctuated by Leonard Fournette doing this:
Special teams hit of the game
I’ll leave you with this, a terrifying block by Jamal Adams that might become illegal by the time you finish reading this sentence. Words can’t do it justice. Just loop it.