LSU’s backfield gave an honest effort at Auburn.
In unusual fashion, senior running back Terrence Magee trotted onto the field as the starter in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night. His first carry was promising: a 6-yard rumble around senior left tackle La’el Collins.
Then, a trend began to take shape for the third time in six weeks. On Magee’s next three carries, he totaled 11 yards, forcing LSU to punt on its first three possessions. Auburn took advantage, scoring 17 points on those possessions to build an early lead in what became a 41-7 blowout.
The issue has plagued the Tigers in their contests against Power Five opponents — in other words, Wisconsin and Southeastern Conference schools Mississippi State and Auburn.
Establishing an early run game — or any rushing attack at all — has been a task LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been unable to check off his list, and the results have ended in two losses and a four-point victory against a nonconference foe.
Against non-Power Five opponents — Football Championship Subdivision squad Sam Houston State and Sun Belt Conference members UL-Monroe and New Mexico State — LSU has averaged 291 rushing yards per game and 5.49 per carry. Those numbers decline to 117.7 per contest and 2.97 per attempt against Power Five foes.
“As an offensive line, we take our rushing yards personally,” sophomore right tackle Jerald Hawkins said. “We believe we’re the ones up front, and we take responsibility. We’re the big brothers of the team. We’re focusing to make sure those numbers go higher.”
LSU certainly has tried to stick to its run-first offensive approach. Of the Tigers’ play calls this season, 61 percent have involved the ground game. That said, LSU’s rushing totals account for only 48 percent of its offensive production.
There are a number of advantages to establishing a potent run game. Whether it’s setting up future play-action, burning the clock or taking pressure off your quarterback’s shoulders, a formidable rushing attack gives the offense an opportunity to stay a step ahead of the defense.
When that same offense has a freshman quarterback, these benefits become even more desired.
“It’s very important to establish the running game early,” sophomore receiver Travin Dural said. “Once you run the ball, everything else is going to open up. The pass is going to open up, and the zone read is going to open up.”
So when the Tigers travel to Gainesville to battle Florida on Saturday night, they’ll be seeking a backfield spark to open up a passing attack against a Gators secondary that ranks No. 13 in the Southeastern Conference.
That catalyst could be either of LSU’s true freshmen at running back: Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams have averaged 3.92 and 3.83 yards per carry against Power Five opponents. Fournette rushed for 4.82 yards per attempt against Mississippi State and Auburn, two of the SEC’s three best run defenses so far.
LSU junior linebacker Lamar Louis, who matches up against Fournette during practice, said he has noticed Fournette adapting to life in the SEC.
“Leonard came in with a different kind of confidence,” Louis said. “It wasn’t a freshman confidence, and I think he’s grown with the speed of the game. Mentally, he came in with a maturity that most freshmen don’t come in with.”
Whether Fournette succeeds in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, though, depends on how effectively the Tigers offensive line can push back a strong Florida run defense.
“We have to run,” senior center Elliott Porter said. “We have to execute, and we have to make the blocks clean. If we do that, everything will work out for itself.”