LSU and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron had the exact look they wanted on their second offensive snap against Arkansas last week.
The Tigers’ three receivers, all of them aligned to the right of a shotgun formation, drew five defenders to the that side of the field. That left six guys to block to the left and center of the field, where Leonard Fournette’s first carry of this game went.
What happened next? Disaster. The next 4 seconds epitomized LSU’s rushing woes in the past two games.
As quarterback Brandon Harris handed to Fournette, Arkansas defensive tackle DeMarcus Hodge shoved center Ethan Pocic three yards into the backfield, cutting off Fournette from running behind center. Left guard Maea Teuhema missed a block on a linebacker, eliminating Fournette from running behind left guard.
Arkansas safety Rohan Gaines — who, at the snap, rushed toward the line from his deep spot — made it impossible for Fournette to run behind left tackle.
With all three of those avenues blocked, Fournette raced toward the sideline, hoping to wheel around the end.
Cornerback Jared Collins, after shedding tight end Colin Jeter’s block, snagged Fournette’s foot.
The result: a 4-yard loss.
Don’t think of this as just one play. This is an autopsy. It’s a live, moving explanation, an answer to the head-scratching questions that many LSU fans probably have.
What has happened to Fournette? How has he slipped from the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, a guy who rolled up three straight 200-yard games, to a player who has combined for 122 yards in the past two games?
The answers: offensive line blocking trouble, safeties rushing into the box in anticipation of the run, a replacement tight end struggling and Fournette running laterally.
“The key to stopping Leonard Fournette is to get Fournette’s shoulders facing the sideline,” ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge told a national television audience after that first carry against Arkansas. “If you get him to run east and west more than north and south, defensively you’ve done a great job. When he gets those shoulders square to the line and hits that hole, he’s a load.”
No. 17 LSU (7-2, 4-2 Southeastern) visits No. 25 Ole Miss (7-3, 4-2) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in its worst rushing funk since 1999. As a team, the Tigers have run for 113 yards — counting sacks — in consecutive losses to Arkansas and Alabama, and their star running back, who seemed like a Heisman Trophy lock, seems pedestrian.
It’s like someone flipped a switch and turned off the lights on a running game that’s oh so important to LSU’s success, so paramount to coach Les Miles’ once-promising 11th season in Baton Rouge.
The Tigers’ rushing issues start with the opposing defense game-planning against a one-dimensional offense. They include missed assignments on the line and whiffs from LSU’s primary run-blockers: backups Jeter and fullback Bry’Kiethon Mouton.
The absence of two starters — 310-pound tight end Dillon Gordon and fullback J.D. Moore — has never been so apparent as it has over the past eight quarters. Both players missed complete games against Arkansas and Western Kentucky and most of the games against Florida and Alabama.
The numbers are telling. Fournette is averaging 7.9 yards per carry with a healthy Moore or Gordon playing. He’s averaging 5.6 yards a pop without either of them.
With one or both Gordon and Moore healthy, Fournette has 18 carries of 15 yards or more. Without either, he has six such carries.
“Anytime you have great players like that that go down, it’s definitely going to be a task to replace them,” right tackle Vadal Alexander said. “I don’t think you can ever replace a player like Dillon Gordon (and) a great fullback like JD, but we do our best.”
LSU has somewhat ditched the fullback spot without Moore. Mouton, a true freshman, has struggled at times. Less than half of Fournette’s 34 carries (excluding four goal-line plays) against Alabama and Arkansas came without a fullback on the field.
The Tigers have, somewhat, cut down on using two-tight end formations as well. Jeter, the new starting tight end, is 60 pounds lighter than Gordon, and his backup, Foster Moreau, is a true freshman whom coaches never planned to play so early.
Fournette ran out of a two-tight end formation just six times in those 34 carries against the Tide and the Hogs.
“Dillon’s a great run blocker, great leader,” Jeter said. “He can also catch the ball. He’s a great tight end. Hurts to have your leader out like that. I try to do my part in stepping up.”
There’s more to the recent woes than the loss of those two players.
Alabama’s and Arkansas’ game plans were clear: Make Fournette run laterally. They bull-rushed LSU’s offensive linemen, pushing them into the backfield and forcing Fournette to change direction. Their linebackers hit the gaps and their safeties rushed to the line of scrimmage at the snap, anticipating a run from a team that passes just 30 percent of the time.
They clogged things up.
“When you’re playing a player like that in the run game, you want to try to make him play left-handed. We want to make him go east and west as much as possible,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said earlier this week after his squad limited Fournette to 91 yards on 19 carries. “When I’m saying east and west … if he was trying to get the ball (to the inside), we’d want to make it bounce 4 to 5 yards so we can get more players there to the tackle. If a play started wider, we wanted to make it go even wider just to get more hats to the party.”
On those 34 carries against Arkansas and Alabama, Fournette was contacted at the line of scrimmage or behind the line 21 times.
The Hogs and Tide had him running laterally. Fournette ran laterally for at least three strides on nine of his 34 carries. He gained a combined 10 yards on those plays.
On carries in which he did not need any lateral movement, Fournette ran for 85 yards on 16 tries.
Miles has suggested not to point the finger at Fournette. It’s not his fault, the coach said.
“We have to put ourselves in position to get Leonard loose more,” he said.
Miles mentioned Fournette’s first run against Arkansas twice Monday in his weekly news conference, specifically highlighting the play from Jeter on the edge — the epitome of LSU’s rushing woes.
“If my tight end had a little bit more width on the play, it may have been about a 25-yard gain,” the coach said. “It’s little pieces and little increments of improvement.
“It’s interesting: We went to 7-0 with this team, and (there’s) a lot of youth on it and they are getting better. For me to say, I’m disappointed this is in some way where they are at — it’s not.”
CHECK THE STATS:
With Moore and/or Gordon healthy
With Moore and Gordon both out
Average per carry
Runs of 15+ yards
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.