SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Brandon Harris dropped back to pass, but before he could set his feet to throw, the pocket started to collapse around him like a poorly built tunnel.
Leonard Fournette, who stayed close by as a safety-valve option on the second-and-8 play, circled behind his quarterback and frantically called to him.
Harris shoveled the ball toward his tailback just before going down.
“I almost dropped it,” Fournette said, his humility on high beam.
He didn’t drop it. Not him.
Fournette trucked 48 yards to the Syracuse 15-yard line to set up LSU’s first score — his touchdown of course, on a catch-me-if-you-can 14-yard dash around left end.
The moral of this story: Whatever bad things befall the LSU Tigers these days, No. 7 is right there to make it all better.
What a game of conflicting emotions for LSU.
There were enough flags — 14 in all for 120 yards — that it seemed possible to lay them end to end and make a yellow brick road that led the 1,400 miles from Syracuse back to Baton Rouge.
Fournette had at least two major rushes, one for 23 yards and another for 87 and a touchdown, wiped out by flags. That’s another 110 yards in ground gains right there. There were bad punts and botched kick returns, everything but (for the third straight game) an LSU turnover.
And yet, there the Tigers were at the end, swaying to the alma mater in front of the Long Distance Band from Tigerland — a bit grim-faced, perhaps, but on balance delighted to escape the Carrier Dome with a 34-24 victory, time having run out on the Orange before they had a chance to leave the No. 8 Tigers crimson-faced with embarrassment over a monumental upset.
It likely would have been a monumental upset without Fournette.
Before taking the field, Fournette studied up on the running backs who made Syracuse the original “RBU.”
He knew Jim Brown. He learned about Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner back in 1961 who died a year later from leukemia. He read up on Jim Nance and on three-time All-American Floyd Little, with whom he posed for a photo afterward.
“I just told him it was an honor to meet him,” Fournette said. “He’s a legend. He told me, ‘Great job today,’ and that he would continue praying for my success.
“I looked him up — Jim Brown, (too). They were the greats. Syracuse started ‘RBU.’ It’s a great tradition here. Who wouldn’t want to come here?”
When it was over, the tradition-starved Syracuse fans probably wished Fournette could stay — or get drafted in a couple of years by the Buffalo Bills.
If Brown and Little and Nance and Davis are legends, Fournette is in the process of becoming one, building a historic career week upon week. He’s in the process of one day becoming LSU’s Brown or Davis, or closer to home, its Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson.
Three games this season, three times Fournette has eclipsed his personal rushing record. He rolled for 159 yards and three touchdowns at Mississippi State, 228 yards and three scores last week against Auburn and 244 with two TDs here Saturday. Through 16 games (just nine of them starts), Fournette’s already 19th on LSU’s career rushing list with 1,665 yards.
Alley Broussard’s 11-year-old single-game rushing record of 250 yards is still a record only because Harris twice took a knee after the Fournette freight train rumbled 30 yards to the Orange 13 in the final moments. With time for one more carry, maybe two, the mark would have been his.
As it is, Fournette is the first LSU back to rush for 200-plus yards in back-to-back games.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Fournette said of coming up short of Broussard’s mark for the second straight week. “It’s going to come eventually. Getting this victory with my team, that’s the best thing.”
There are signs everywhere in the cramped, un-air-conditioned Carrier Dome that remind you Syracuse is New York’s college team. You think New York and college football, and of course you think of the Heisman Trophy. And on this Saturday, with so many left to go, Fournette did nothing to dent his standing as the current leader for the sport’s most famous individual award. Every indication remains he will be back in the Empire State in December.
Meanwhile, was it yet another imperfect LSU win for the Les Miles regime? Absolutely. This was the Tigers’ 106th win under Miles, and it seems about their 55th that has left the Tiger faithful squirming in their seats — left to celebrate, what, Victory Lite?
But Fournette makes it go down smoother.
In fact, on a day like this, he made winning possible.