The Florida defense was supremely confident it could, for one night anyway, stop Leonard Fournette’s run to the Heisman Trophy in Saturday night’s showdown with LSU in Tiger Stadium.
Florida defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard went so far as to say Fournette, who had gained 1,022 yards and 12 touchdowns in the Tigers’ first five games, “was nothing we can’t stop.”
On Saturday night, Bullard and his Florida teammates, who ranked 12th in the nation against the run in allowing just 99.2 yards per game, had a chance to back it up.
But Fournette, as he has done all season, had the last word.
The sophomore from New Orleans chalked up his eighth consecutive 100-yard game dating to last season, this time piling up 180 yards and touchdowns of 2 and 6 yards to help sixth-ranked LSU to a 35-28 win over No. 8 Florida.
Fournette said he didn’t think about Bullard’s comments immediately before or during the showdown of two undefeated teams.
“It’s something that goes through my mind during practice,” he said. “When you get to the game, you’re thinking about what you have to do to play. You have business to do. ... I don’t take it personally.
“It does make you run harder in practice,” Fournette added. “We’re not really hitting out there (on the practice field), but when you see a gap, you run 50 yards down the field. It’s all about preparing in practice.”
On Saturday, nine of his career-high 31 carries produced first downs, and he also caught one pass for 15 yards.
Florida defenders apparently tried everything in their attempt to at least slow down Fournette, who said he was even poked in the eye at the bottom of the pile on at least one occasion.
“Coach (Les) Miles told us it was going to be like a street fight,” he said. “We were going pound-for-pound on each play. They were flying to the ball.
“They’re the most physical team we’ve played. They’re very athletic, too.”
When asked if he saw who poked him in the eye, Fournette said, “You can’t really tell who it is, because you’re at the bottom of the pile and you have six people on top of you.”
Fournette’s first touchdown in the second quarter tied the game at 7-7. The 2-yard scoring run came at the end of an 88-yard drive when he lined up in the Wildcat formation, as he did earlier in the season, took the snap from center and waltzed untouched to the end zone.
Fournette gave LSU a 21-7 lead by scoring his second touchdown on a more conventional run.
Set up with a first-and-goal at the Florida 6 after a 52-yard pass from Harris to Dupre that came with Fournette serving as the middle man on a flea flicker, using UF’s focus on him against the Gators, Fournette barreled off tackle into the end zone — taking Florida defenders Quincy Wilson and Keanu Neal with him.
It was the 14th touchdown of the season for Fournette, who had 10 in 13 games during his freshman season in 2014.
Fournette, who surpassed his rushing total of 1,034 yards of a year ago on his third carry of the game, had 100 yards on 15 carries in the first half. That was just over the average Florida allowed in its first six games.
Things were tougher for Fournette in the second half as Florida tightened up, but the damage was done even though he was playing without two of his top blockers: fullback John David Moore and tight end Dillon Gordon.
Moore injured his knee in last week’s win over South Carolina and Gordon, a 300-pound blocking tight end who had missed the past three games with an injured Achilles’ tendon, re-injured his leg on the first play of the Tigers’ second possession.
Florida did do a good job of keeping Fournette from hitting the big home run he had hit in four of the first five games as his long gain was 25 yards.
But he certainly did enough to help LSU, which ranked third in the nation in rushing with 346.4 yards per game, to 221 net yards on 41 attempts.
“Teams line up against us, and they don’t want to give up 160 yards to Leonard Fournette,” Miles said of his star tailback, who now has 1,202 rushing yards on 150 carries and an 8.0 average to go with his 14 TDs. “Our offensive line blocks the best they can, and the rest is up to Leonard … and he’s going to compete.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.