GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) It’s the matchup of the game, the week and maybe even the season.
LSU star running back Leonard Fournette vs. Florida’s vaunted defense. The Heisman Trophy front-runner against a unit playing as well as any in the country. The undisputed stars of two undefeated teams going head-to-head in prime time.
Grab a beverage and get comfy because this is college football’s version of must-see TV.
”He’s a nasty runner,” Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis said. ”He’s physical. He’s the best athlete in the nation. … He jumps out more than anybody else I’ve seen. … He likes to finish his runs. We’ve just got to make sure we all got to get to the ball and get him to the ground.”
No one has done it yet.
Fournette leads the nation with 1,022 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He’s the fastest player in school history to reach 1,000 yards on the ground and the 10th player in Football Bowl Subdivision to accomplish the feat in five games. He’s also the first player in Southeastern Conference history to run for 200 or more yards in three consecutive games.
Moreover, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound sophomore ranks second nationally in scoring (14.4 points per game), third in all-purpose yards (212.6 per game) and fourth in yards per carry (8.59).
”He’s the best back in the league,” Gators defensive tackle Jon Bullard said. ”He’s nothing that we can’t stop. But we all do have to rally to the ball because he’s an excellent matchup.”
No. 8 Florida (6-0, 4-0 SEC) ranks second in the SEC against the run, giving up 99.2 yards a game. Most of that came against Tennessee, which ran for 254 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators. Florida missed about 30 tackles in that one, but was considerable better the last two weeks against Mississippi and Missouri.
Facing Fournette and the sixth-ranked Tigers (5-0, 3-0) will be a much stiffer challenge, and everyone knows it.
”We don’t want him to run through us and then everybody question if we’re the best,” Bullard said. ”I believe that we are the best and I think a lot of people do, too. As long as we play our game, rally to the ball and nobody tries to do anything extra, we’re going to be fine.”
Fournette already has been named the SEC’s offensive player of the week three times this season, and he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.
Oh, and Fournette had his breakout conference game against the Gators last season. He ran 27 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-27 win in Gainesville.
”It was a physical game,” Fournette recalled. ”Their defense is fast. Their whole team is fast, pretty much, so, man, I don’t know what to tell you. They’re a great team. Their defense looks the same as last year. They’re a talented team all across the board, and we have to come out and compete.”
Although Florida has been the SEC’s biggest surprise this season under first-year coach Jim McElwain, most would point to the offense as the main reason for the turnaround. But the defense has been even better than expected.
The Gators have arguably the most talented secondary in the country, spearheaded by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and safety Marcus Maye, and another game-changing defensive lineman in Bullard. Bullard is latest in a growing list of Florida players who developed into disruptive defenders, following Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and Dante Fowler Jr.
And Davis and fellow linebacker Antonio Morrison have the ability to get sideline to sideline and tackle in space.
”I know one thing: They’re an athletic bunch,” LSU quarterback Brandon Harris said. ”They’re an aggressive bunch. Their back half is one of the most talented groups I’ve ever seen in the country, outside of our guys. … We’ve got to be sharp.”
LSU’s chances likely begin and end with Fournette, who has topped 140 yards rushing in each of the team’s last seven games. And Florida knows that slowing him down – something no one has done in nearly a year – is the key to winning in Baton Rouge for the first time since 2009.
”You’re facing arguably the best player in college football,” McElwain said. ”His production, you know, it’s unbelievable. We’ll see if we actually wrap up. Or maybe this guy called the guy in Tennessee and said, `Hey these guys don’t tackle.’ He’s probably excited as hell right now. I may be staring at a 300-yard game against these guys.”
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org