BATON ROUGE, La. — Regardless of how much hobbled LSU star running back Leonard Fournette plays, the No. 20 Tigers remain optimistic about their prospects for gaining yards on the ground against Mississippi State.
LSU sophomore Derrius Guice rushed for 155 yards in his first career start last weekend, when Fournette sat out to rest his bruised left ankle.
“My whole mindset when I found out (Fournette) was not playing was to fill in, get first downs, stay focused and don’t miss blocks,” Guice recalled.
He did better than that. But then, Jacksonville State is a team in the NCAA’s second-tier Football Championship Subdivision, meaning fewer scholarships and fewer big-time recruits. This Saturday night in Death Valley, there could be far more resistance from the Bulldogs, who enter Death Valley giving up only 60 yards rushing per game.
LSU has labored through quarterback play so spotty that coach Les Miles replaced starter Brandon Harris with Danny Etling in the Tigers’ second game of the season last Saturday. Etling flourished early on, leading touchdown drives on his first few series, but his passing production was non-existent in the second half, when the Tigers needed their running game to pad their lead.
Mississippi State defensive players expect to see plenty more of LSU’s running game this weekend.
“They didn’t have Leonard Fournette last week and they still had a couple guys who still tote the ball pretty good and had a bunch of big runs,” Bulldogs defensive end A.J. Jefferson said. “So they want to run the football. Until we stop them from running the football, that’s what they’re going to do.”
Miles, who is often purposely vague when a player’s status is in doubt, has been so in regard to Fournette this week.
“We really want to wait until he’s 100 percent and he’s really closing in on that right now, so we would expect that we may have him for Saturday,” Miles said.
Fournette, who rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, gained 138 yards in LSU’s season-opening, 16-14 loss to Wisconsin. On his last carry, he took a hard hit to his ankle, hobbled to the sidelined and hasn’t played since.
Mississippi State is preparing to defend him regardless.
“Really, it’s the physical challenge of when you make contact, is the play over?” MSU defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said of Fournette. “He has the ability to bounce things and create — not just first downs — but hit home runs where you don’t think home runs will be available. For us, it’s limiting yards after contact and how many hats we can get to the ball. It’s 11 on one. There’s one ball and 11 of us.”
Even if Fournette plays, MSU can still expect to contend with the emerging Guice, who at 5-foot-11, 212-pounds, is smaller and somewhat less powerful than the 6-1, 235-pound Fournette. But Guice is explosive and shifty, and said he has become a much more refined and cerebral running back in his second season with the Tigers.
“I learned from last year that I have to be more patient with my runs,” Guice said. “I study the game more now. I have to know where every lineman is going on every play. I am more a student of the game. That’s what you do in the NFL. You practice 10 percent of the time. Then, you study and watch film.”
LSU has yet another change-of-pace running back in the 6-1, 233-pound Darrell Williams, who is more of a straight-ahead power runner.
“We’re going to be very cognizant of how Leonard feels,” Miles said. “But we’re fortunate to have — we used a kind of running back by committee with Leonard missing — and I think it kept Derrius fresh and Darrel fresh and got some other guys in. … We’re fortunate to have real quality backs to turn to when you have a guy like Leonard Fournette out of the lineup.”
As long as LSU’s offensive line performs well, it might not matter who carries the ball. Miles sees evidence of improvement there, and said guard Josh Boutte, who was suspended one game for a flagrant foul at the end of the season opener, will be back in the lineup.
“They will play better again; whether it’s a rotation or a spot for Josh Boutte, I think the five-some will play well,” Miles said of his linemen. “There’s six or seven guys here that can really play, and we look forward to them mixing and matching.”
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Starkville, Mississippi, contributed to this report
AP College Football: collegefootball.ap.org