GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Leonard Fournette was a man on a mission Saturday night — ready, willing and certainly able to make somebody pay the price for LSU’s crushing 41-7 loss at Auburn a week earlier.
That would be Florida’s defense, which Fournette took aim at from the start of their crucial Southeastern Conference matchup in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The freshman tailback ran through, around, and even up and over an array of Florida defenders in LSU’s pulsating 30-27 victory, putting the entire offense on his back in rushing for a career-high 140 yards and touchdowns of 12 and 2 yards.
Fournette, who ran for 122 yards in LSU’s battering of New Mexico State on Sept. 27, followed that with 42 yards on only 10 attempts against Auburn — making Florida a marked team Saturday night.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Fournette shredded Florida’s run defense, which ranked fourth in the SEC in allowing just 103.0 yards per game, for 85 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in the first half alone and then wore the Gators down in the second half with another 55 yards on 13 attempts.
LSU finished with 195 yards on 50 carries against a team that allowed just 28 yards and 0.9 yards per carry in its previous outing against Tennessee, carrying an offense that struggled to throw the ball again.
But Fournette and senior Terrence Magee, who gained 50 yards on six attempts, didn’t mind pounding Florida at will — especially Fournette, who showed all the promise that made him the nation’s No. 1 recruit last winter.
“I felt good running the ball, but it was a close game,” Fournette said of LSU’s victory, which wasn’t secured until Colby Delahoussaye drilled a 50-yard field goal with 3 seconds to play. “My nerves were kind of bad. I was kind of nervous, but I closed the game well.”
His 27 carries were also a career high (he had 18 against New Mexico State), something he didn’t foresee going into the game.
“No, I did not (anticipate it), but I was ready,” he said. “Young Tigers are here to play big roles.”
After a slow start in which he had just 9 yards on four carries on the first two possessions, Fournette got going after LSU, down 7-0 early following Andre Debose’s 62-yard punt return for a score, got a huge break on a fumble by Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander forced the fumble and defensive end Jermauria Rasco recovered at the UF 28 to set up Fournette, who needed two runs to get into the end zone — gaining 16 yards on the first play and then leveling Florida safety Marcus Maye on his next carry. Busting free up the middle, he bowled over the 200-pound Maye at the 4 and knocked him back two yards into the end zone for the score.
Then, in the second period, with his team trailing 17-7 in a game LSU had to have, Fournette carried six consecutive times for 41 yards — setting up a 1-yard TD by Kenny Hilliard on fourth down that trimmed the deficit to three points at halftime.
Fournette’s first carry on the drive, which started with him getting a breather on the sideline, went for 20 yards to Florida’s 22, and two plays later, his 15-yard dash set the Tigers up with a first-and-goal at the UF 3.
On LSU’s second possession of the second half, Fournette was back at it.
He started the series with another 20-yard run on the first play to push his total to 110 yards, igniting a drive that covered 65 yards in 13 plays and drained 8 minutes, 16 seconds off the clock.
After two third-down penalties against the Florida defense, Fournette gave LSU its first lead at 20-17 when he took off from the 3 and leaped up and over the Gators’ tightly-bunched defensive line for a 2-yard TD.
“(Running backs) coach Frank (Wilson) told me, ‘Leonard, go north and south … you’ve got to go downhill,’” Fournette said. “That’s what all the running backs did.”
When asked how tough it was to run on Florida even though he had a pair of 20-yard carries and a 15-yarder as well, he said it was.
But it was made easier, he said, running behind what he said may have been the best performance of the season by LSU’s offensive line.
“It was tough, but the O-line protected and blocked for us well,” he said. “We just followed them. Yeah, and I believe that made me more comfortable.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.