University of Florida

Florida Gators’ solid run defense braces for LSU star tailback Leonard Fournette

LSU’s Leonard Fournette, scoring on a 2-yard run against UF last season in a dramatic victory, averages 204.5 yards per game.
LSU’s Leonard Fournette, scoring on a 2-yard run against UF last season in a dramatic victory, averages 204.5 yards per game. AP

A classic paradox might be answered once and for all Saturday night.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object?

LSU’s Leonard Fournette is built like a Mack Truck but runs like a Bugatti.

The Heisman Trophy front-runner has keyed the sixth-ranked Tigers (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) into the national championship conversation, but No. 8 Florida’s unrelenting and nasty defense aims to shut down Fournette and keep its own fairytale season alive in a bayou brawl under the lights in Death Valley).

“We want to keep this train going,” UF junior linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “We’ve been waiting all season for this. We didn’t know we’d be in this position — the top 10 — but we’re just ready to go. We want to take over.”

Although Florida has dealt with multiple negative national headlines this week — quarterback Will Grier’s suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and special teams ace Deiondre Porter’s alleged assault on his pregnant girlfriend — Saturday’s monumental matchup hasn’t changed.

Can Florida’s tenacious defense solve the Sphinx-esque riddle and find a way to stop Fournette?

LSU’s 230-pound sophomore back is the fastest in SEC history to reach 1,000 yards to start a season — topping the mark before the leaves even changed this autumn.

Breaking records

He’s breaking SEC records with abandon, averaging a whopping 204.5 yards per game and 8.6 yards per carry. His coming-out-party as a freshman was actually against UF, rushing for a 140 yards and two scores in LSU’s dramatic 30-27 win in Gainesville.

In 11 games since facing the Gators, Fournette has rushed for at least 140 yards seven times and became the first SEC tailback to gain more than 200 yards in three consecutive games.

“You’re facing the best player in college football,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “His production is unbelievable. So now you have to go challenge yourself.”

Led by Davis, Antonio Morrison and a relentless front four, the Gators have been stout against the run in 2015, yielding just 99 yards a game — 12th-best nationally.

Florida hasn’t faced a traditional power-running team all season, though. It will now.

“They do what we like to do,” said Davis, on the game’s impending physical and smash-mouth nature. “They hit. We like to hit, so bring it on.”

Well, maybe.

UF struggled against Tennessee’s bruising attack engineered from the spread, missing upward of 30 tackles against powerful tailback Jalen Hurd and elusive quarterback Josh Dobbs.

So McElwain, never one to shy away from hyperbole, continued his weekly motivational muses to pump up his defense.

“[Fournette’s] probably excited as hell right now, saying, ‘I may be staring at a 300-yard game against these guys,’ ” McElwain said.

“The way we tackled the guys from Tennessee, I’m sure Leonard is liking his lips, saying, ‘This is probably the chance to get 300 yards. The heck with these 200-yard games.’ 

The Gators tackled well against Ole Miss and Missouri, and they understand stopping — or even merely slowing down — Fournette will take a group effort.

“He’s the best back in the league,” defensive tackle Jon Bullard said. “We’re just going to have to rally to the ball.

“He’s nothing we can’t stop, but we all do have to rally to the ball because he’s an excellent matchup.”

Ganging up

Florida is focused on gang tackling, with linebackers assistant and co-defensive coordinator Randy Shannon saying, “You know the kill shot, that may be great for the crowd, but when it all comes down to it, a tackle is a tackle no matter how you get it.”

Considering LSU is almost one-dimensional by design, Florida aims to force the Tigers to pass to win.

Although LSU has weapons outside (Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre), quarterback Brandon Harris doesn’t have much experience, and UF’s strength lies in its pass rush and stacked secondary. The Gators lead the conference in takeaways (13) and sacks (21) and rank second in tackles for loss (49).

“Best defense in the country against the best player in the country,” cornerback Jalen Tabor said.

Said Bullard: “This is a good matchup. It gives us something to go out and fight for. We don’t want him to run through us and then everybody question if we’re the best. I believe we are the best, and I think a lot of people do, too.”

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