The big question entering LSU’s game against Eastern Michigan: Would running back Leonard Fournette get the single-game school record against the nation’s worst rushing defense?
The question afterward: Why did LSU need Fournette to nearly claim that lofty record to beat lowly Eastern Michigan?
Fournette ran for 233 yards, scored three touchdowns and carried the sluggish Tigers to a 44-22 win over the Eagles on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
The sophomore sensation continued his record-setting start to the season, and it’s a good thing he did.
LSU led just 30-22 before Fournette’s final touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and the Tigers needed a 75-yard scoring run from Fournette on the first play of the second half to extend a stunning halftime score: LSU 20, Eastern Michigan 14.
“We probably underestimated them because of their record,” Fournette said. “That’s on us. We’ve got to pick it up.”
Fournette was there to save the day for the 45-point favorites, and it came with an impeccable milestone: He became the first player in the history of the Southeastern Conference to run for more than 200 yards in three straight games.
“Nice to have a back that set an all-time SEC record,” coach Les Miles said
Fournette fell just 18 yards shy of breaking the school’s single-game record for rushing yards. He finished 7 yards shy of cracking that mark last week against Syracuse.
Does he care?
“I don’t care as long as we’re winning,” he said.
Extending his frontrunner status for the Heisman Trophy, Fournette rolled to a sixth straight game of at least 100 rushing yards. Just one LSU player has done it more: Charles Alexander.
His snazzy sidesteps, fiery bursts and tackle-breaking rumbles overshadowed a sloppy performance from a team ranked No. 9 in the nation.
The Tigers (4-0) had a slew of special-teams woes, and the passing game sputtered behind a 4-for-15 day from Brandon Harris. Receivers had drops — two from Travin Dural that could have been scores — and LSU’s defense, subbing reserves often, struggled at times.
Don’t worry, though. LSU has Fournette, the 230-pound New Orleans native who has rushed for 864 yards, the most by any player nationally through the first four games since at least 2000.
Fournette had seven runs of at least 9 yards, none bigger than that 75-yard jaunt on the first play of the second half. The Tigers led just 20-14 at halftime before Fournette followed blocks from left tackle Jerald Hawkins and tight end Colin Jeter, racing along the home sideline to roars from a partially filled stadium on a chilly October night.
“Just a simple zone play,” Jeter said. “Linemen did a good job of basing up guys, and we cracked one open and Leonard does what he does. It’s obviously an energy booster. It was really a confidence booster as well. Really helped us get back on track in the second half.”
Fournette picked up nearly half of LSU’s 28 first downs on carries, and the Tigers rode their star to a closer-than-expected win that might have put a scare into some teams. Fournette said the Tigers were “joking and playing” at practice this week ahead of the game against the Eagles, one of the worst programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“You don’t take them seriously,” Fournette said. “That’s on the leaders on the team for not stepping up in practice while everybody was joking and playing.”
“We knew coming in they were a tough opponent to face,” Jeter said. “We never take anybody lightly. They really played their butts off tonight.”
Eastern Michigan arrived in Baton Rouge with the nation’s worst rushing defense, allowing more than 370 yards on the ground per game.
Fournette’s carry count was a hot topic before the game. Would he get enough carries to break the single-game rushing mark of 250 yards in what was sure to be a blowout?
He finished with 26 carries, averaging 9 yards a pop — just another dominant night for the tailback in his stunning start. Fournette last week joined former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker of Georgia and Florida standout Emmitt Smith as the only SEC players to run for at least 200 yards in consecutive games. He’s now alone at the top after this three-game stretch: 228, 244 and 233.
“There’s not a time when you hand him the ball that he doesn’t have an opportunity to hit a home run,” Miles said.
His performance covered up a woeful performance across the board. There were a handful of highlights.
Linebacker Deion Jones returned an interception for a score early in the fourth quarter, and cornerback Kevin Toliver picked off a pass near the goal line late in the fourth, but Dural and Dupre each dropped touchdown passes, and Harris misfired on a host of times.
Harris threw his first interception of the season — LSU’s first turnover of the year — in the second quarter on a weird play. Pressured heavily, the quarterback was hit while passing. The ball went into the air and was caught by Eastern Michigan’s Luke MacLean to set up a short touchdown drive.
Moments later, though, Fournette had that 75-burst to start the third quarter. All seemed OK.
“I don’t want to say we were frustrated at halftime, but we knew we could have played better,” defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said. “First play of the game, Leonard took it 75 yards. I think it started from there. You say, ‘Hey, we’re going to match that too on defense.’ Think we did. It wasn’t pretty, but we got the win.”