Both sides are doling out compliments.
“He’s a nasty runner, you know,” Gators linebacker Jarrad Davis said of LSU running back Leonard Fournette. “He’s physical. He’s the best athlete in the nation. He’s going to be the Heisman winner, I think, just from seeing him on film compared to everybody else. He jumps out more than anybody else I’ve seen.”
Fournette praised Florida’s defense earlier this week.
“They’re very active,” said Fournette, who ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns against Florida as a freshman last season. ‘They have a lot of great players on their defense that can make plays, any time, any moment.”
But Gators cornerback Jalen Tabor had the best synopsis of the showdown packed inside Saturday’s battle between No. 8 Florida and No. 6 LSU. (7 p.m, ESPN).
“Without a doubt, best defense in the country against the best player in the country,” Tabor said.
Fournette has run around, past and through defenders this season to make himself the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. The sophomore leads the nation with 1,022 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns on just 119 carries in five games this season.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Fournette is averaging 8.6 rushing yards per carry and 204.4 rushing yards per game, which puts him on pace to run for 2,248 yards in the regular season. If Fournette hits that number, he would shatter the Southeastern Conference’s single-season rushing record of 1,891 yards set by Georgia’s Herschel Walker in 1981.
“Let’s face it, this running back they have — everything you read — should be celebrated because this guy is the real deal,” Gators coach Jim McElwain said. “ He has taken his game and they have developed him to be not only one-dimensional but multidimensional. The guy is an every-down back at the next level.”
Despite the video game-like numbers, Florida’s defense is confident it can do something nobody has done yet this season — contain Fournette.
“He’s the best back in the league. We’re just going to have to rally to the ball and tackle him,” senior defensive lineman Jon Bullard said. “He’s nothing that we can’t stop. But we all do have to rally to the ball because he’s an excellent matchup.”
The Gators rank second in the SEC and 12th nationally in stopping the run, allowing 99.2 rushing yards per game. A lot of that success has to do with Florida’s dominant defensive front led by Bullard, and aggressive linebackers like Antonio Morrison and Davis.
Florida has allowed an average of 87.5 rushing yards in its last two games (Ole Miss and Missouri).
“You got to gang tackle,” Davis said of the key to stopping Fournette. “ Everybody has to be there to get this guy on the ground. You’ve got to grab cloth, be nasty, you know? You got to make sure that he doesn’t like running the ball against your defense.”
But the last time the Gators went against a big back like Fournette, it didn’t go too well.
On top of Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs (6-3, 207) breaking a bunch of tackles on his way to running for 136 yards against the Gators on Sept. 26, Volunteers running back Jalen Hurd (6-4, 240) ran through defenders to rack up 102 rushing yards of his own in the game. McElwain said he counted more than 30 missed tackles in Florida’s 28-27 comeback win over Tennessee.
Fournette will pose an even tougher test, as he’s averaging 4.6 yards per carry after contact, according to Pro Football Focus.
“We had an eye-opener against Tennessee,” Davis said. “We missed a lot of tackles that game, so we know what we need to do facing a back like this. So we’ve got to make sure that we come in with the right mentality, to be physical at the point of contact, make sure that we wrap up and get him to the ground. We’ve got to do it as a group, too, because this is a huge guy.”
In fact, Fournette is the size of a linebacker— literally. He’s listed one inch shorter than Davis, but at the same exact weight.
“This is a good matchup,” Bullard said. “It gives something to go out and fight for. We don’t want him to run through us and then everybody question if we’re the best. I believe that we are the best and I think a lot of people do, too.”