Two short weeks ago, the idea of stopping Leonard Fournette was laughable. LSU's superhuman running back was the breakaway Heisman favorite, an unmitigated force of nature that led the country in touchdown runs and had gone over 150 rushing yards in seven straight games.
But then something weird happened: Fournette started looking human. He was stopped in his tracks against Bama, whose monstrous front seven held him to just 31 yards on 19 carries. He managed 91 yards the next week against Arkansas, but his 4.8 yards per attempt were a full 2 yards below his season average; his longest run was just 13 yards and he was a non-factor for most of the second half. It's no coincidence that previously unbeaten LSU lost those two games by a combined 31 points.
The question is: how did Bama and Arkansas manage to slow down Fournette and, more importantly, can Ole Miss' defense do the same? Here are five things you need to know about LSU's run game and how the Rebel defense matches up against it.
1. LSU's blocking isn't what it once was.
The most significant factor in Leonard Fournette's recent struggles has nothing to do with Leonard Fournette. I'll let And the Valley Shook break down what's been going on with the fellas who are supposed to block.
LSU's offensive line has gone from a team strength to a massive liability. The line has been beyond terrible these past two weeks, and if you can't block, you can't do anything else. If the line falls apart, so does the offense. This just in: the line has fallen apart.
It's not as if Nick Saban came up with some ingenious run blitz or stacked the box to overwhelm the Tigers at the point of attack. He simply lined his front seven against LSU's O-line and whipped their ass (though in fairness, Bama's NFL-quality front has whipped everyone's ass). Per Ross Dellenger of The Advocate, the Tide had an extra defender in the box on just six of Fournette's 17 runs (excluding two goal-line carries).
It hasn't been just run-blocking, mind you. A Razorback defense that had just eight sacks during its previous nine games took down Brandon Harris five times last Saturday.
2. Where'd the I-formation go?
Watching a Les Miles offense is kind of like walking through a natural history museum -- there, beside the skeleton of the extinct bird and in front of the crude stone tools of early humans, is something labeled "I-formation." But a season-ending injury to fullback J.D. Moore during the Bama game kept Miles from leaning on his beloved relic against Arkansas. LSU ran just five of its 32 first-half plays out of the I, according to Marcus Rodrigue of The Advocate.
Considering that one of the biggest criticisms of Miles has been his refusal to modernize his prehistoric power-run philosophy, it's ironic that those one-back and spread looks didn't work against the Hogs. But the fact of the matter is that this offense is built around sending a fullback between the guards and pounding away. Take that away and the entire scheme changes.
3. You can't run it when you're playing from behind.
In the second halves against Bama and Arkansas, LSU spent 48 of 60 minutes trailing by double digits. During those 48 minutes, the Tigers threw 32 times and handed off to Fournette just 15 times.
Falling behind in the second half has forced LSU to the air, which is why the defense shares blame in Fournette's lack of production. Against Bama, it was sustained marches (the Tide's six scoring drives averaged seven plays and 50 yards apiece). But against the Hogs, the LSU D kept allowing explosive plays. Three of Arkansas' four touchdowns came on plays longer than 50 yards and 201 of their total 440 yards came on those three scores.
And now they face an Ole Miss offense that leads the league in explosive plays.
4. Bert says he forced Fournette to the edges.
Here's Bret Bielema, via The Times-Picayune, on how the Razorbacks slowed Fournette down:
We wanna make him go east and west as much as possible ... Now, when I say east and west, whether he's trying to hit the A-gap, B-gap, C-gap — they've got it all. He really isn't just an inside or outside runner. He's got the whole gamut, so if it was trying to get the ball in a hole maybe toward the inside of the football, we'd wanna try to make it bounce 4 to 5 yards to where we could get more players involved in the tackle. If he started wider, we'd want him to go even wider, just to get more hats to the party.
Robert Nkemdiche and Breeland Speaks are NFL-caliber defensive tackles that excel at penetrating and disrupting the backfield, which will be the key in forcing Fournette off his spot. Ole Miss can play a pair of bigger, run-stopping D-ends (Fadol Brown and Channing Ward) to help solidify the edge and string Fournette further outside, where defensive backs Mike Hilton, Tony Conner, Trae Elston and Kendarius Webster all excel at tackling in space (though tackling in space and tackling Leonard Fournette in space are admittedly two very different things).
5. Stopping the run is now the strength of Ole Miss' defense.
The knock against last year's Rebel D was that their athletic but undersized front was susceptible to the power run (the deciding factor in last year's LSU loss was a 95-yard, fourth-quarter drive that saw the Tigers run 16 times in a row). But with Ole Miss' secondary the mess that it is, this year's D would much rather face a ground attack.
In SEC play, the Rebs rank first in rushing touchdowns allowed and third in both yards per game and yards per carry. They're also 13th nationally in rushing defense S&P+ and rushing success rate, per Football Study Hall. Through 10 games, the only guys to run for 100 yards against them are Derrick Henry (whose 127 yards is the fourth lowest total of his season) and Alex Collins (whose 108 yards is the third lowest total of his season).
The key to beating LSU is simple: slow down Leonard Fournette, and the rest of the offense shuts down. The odds say that if Ole Miss can keep him under 150 yards, they'll win. That, of course, is one of those tidy statements that fits on an ESPN Keys to the Game graphic and sounds great until Fournette is out there flippin' fuckers over his back like he's in a poorly-choreographed Jason Statham movie.
The Rebs will win if they can control Fournette. But even with LSU's struggling O-line, limited personnel and leaky defense, that remains a momentous if.