How Leonard Fournette was able to dominate Auburn

Sam Monson illustrates what makes LSU's Leonard Fournette such a difficult running back to defend.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

How Leonard Fournette was able to dominate Auburn


Players usually try to avoid bulletin board material before a big game. The challenge in the opposition is usually big enough from the outset without gifting them an extra reason to be motivated for the game.

If you’re going to slip and drop a line that will wind up motivating them, however, it’s a good idea to at least try and avoid charging up an athletic super-freak who can lay waste to your team single-handedly. Johnathan “Rudy” Ford and Auburn woke the beast in Leonard Fournette and he rampaged through their defense, ripping them for 228 rushing yards and three touchdowns at an average of 12 per carry.

The worst part of it from Ford’s point of view was his own personal hand in the destruction. He was the guy who issued the quote before the game, but he was also a big part in two of Fournette’s big runs in the game, including the very first play LSU ran from scrimmage.

LSU lined up in simple I-formation and ran right up the middle against the Auburn defense. The play was blocked well, but the unblocked player coming up to fill the hole was none other than Ford. Missing the tackle was bad enough, but the reason he missed is that he managed to clip the official on his way through to Fournette and almost blocked himself past the big back. Another broken tackle later and Fournette had turned the first carry of the game into a 71-yard gain, already making the pre-game claims look foolish.

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The bottom line is that no matter how successful you might think you’ll be at it, stopping a guy like Fournette is never going to be easy. He has sprinter’s speed, stands 6-foot-1, weighs 230-plus pounds and is a pretty natural runner to go with it all. That’s just an objectively tough man to take to the ground. In this game alone, he broke 11 tackles in 19 carries and gained 163 of his 228 yards after contact.

The ironic thing is that for stretches Ford was actually proved right. The first play was a disaster, but after that Auburn bottled him up for a couple of goal line plays before LSU were able to score with QB Brandon Harris getting in on an option play. The issue with a back like Fournette isn’t really how you can do against him on any given play, it’s that sooner or later he is going to break something on the defense, and when that happens, it’s going to be big.

If you are to stop a back like Fournette, it helps if you at least line up in a way that gives you a fighting chance of getting it done. This touchdown run saw them fail to do that. At the snap there is already a major problem for Auburn, who are under-shifted up front, outnumbered on the strong side of the LSU formation. What makes this worse is that LSU runs a power play, pulling the backside guard around to the strong side of the formation along with the lead-blocking fullback to give Fournette a free run into the secondary.

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By the time the blocking gets developed, Fournette has another clear path into the secondary. He is forced a little wide by one of the Auburn defensive linemen forcing his way past the tight end, but this play was going to be successful the moment it was called because the Auburn defense was never in a position to defend it – they were undermanned at the point of attack the whole way, and often the running game is simply a battle of manpower, numbers at the crucial spot on the field.

Though this play was going to gain good yardage from the outset, it turned into a touchdown because of two things:

1. Fournette beasting
2. Rudy Ford having no interest whatsoever in involving himself in the play.

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Ford is the free safety, in the middle of the field, and he doesn’t get close enough to even attempt a tackle on Fournette. He jogs his way slowly towards the big running back and half-heartedly puts an arm out as if to show he was trying to make the play. On any given play this is horrendous, but when you were the guy talking about how easy it would be to stop him, it’s inexcusable. Left cornerback Blake Countess gets run right over for the eventual score, but at least he worked hard to get in position to make a play and gave the tackle his best shot. Effort won’t always get it done, but zero effort on a play will have an almost 100% failure rate.

Moving beyond Ford being taught a fairly embarrassing lesson on the big stage, the point he was trying to make when he issued his bulletin board quote was actually a valid one. He was trying to make the point that LSU quarterback Brandon Harris was probably the bigger threat to the defense, and though Fournette ran all over them, Harris made some big plays too, and scored three touchdowns of his own between carries and passing plays.

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Take a look at this passing play. Auburn has things well covered and is about to pressure Harris in the pocket. That’s usually a win for the defense, except Harris uses it to take off and gain big yardage with his legs. This is the kind of play that Ford was concerned about when highlighting him as the biggest threat of that offense.

Indeed down by the goal line LSU was making plays with Harris while using Fournette as the decoy – taking advantage of the attention he was drawing and hitting them with easier opportunities for other players.

The first score came on an option play with both Harris and Fournette running to the left. Ford (again) was put in a tough spot trying to split the two potential threats and ended up overplaying it to the outside, towards Fournette, allowing Harris the space to cut up field into the end zone.

Later on LSU again fakes the carry to Fournette, only to have Harris bootleg out to the other side and hit his tight end for the easy score.

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Rudy Ford’s point made sense, but his delivery was clumsy. He allowed what should have been a benign comment to become motivation for a monster prospect at running back, and then compounded his error by being at the center of almost every good thing Fournette did in the game. If you’re going to make the mistake of dismissing somebody like Fournette as not that big of a challenge, you have to at least make every effort to prove yourself right. Missing tackles, getting taken out by officials, and then making what looks very much like a ‘business decision’ not to involve yourself in a play that ended up in a touchdown only serves to turn you into a bad punch line.

Ford angered the beast, and did nothing to minimize the destruction it wrought.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

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