BATON ROUGE, La. -- Welcome back, Leonard Fournette.
If anyone had forgotten the identity of the nation’s best running back while LSU’s star junior sat out for nearly a month with an ankle injury, Fournette quickly reminded them with 284 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Saturday’s 38-21 victory over Ole Miss.
“I’ve never been a part of a player like Leonard to be honest with you,” LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron said afterward. “But yeah, he’s dynamic. I believe he’s the best player in the country.”
Thanks to touchdown runs of 59, 76 and 78 yards, Fournette had already broken LSU’s single-game rushing record of 250 yards a few minutes into the third quarter. He needed all of eight carries to get there.
Then he set his sights on the SEC record book. Fournette eventually fell short of both conference marks that at one point seemed within reach -- those for rushing yards (321) and average yards per carry (19.6 for a back with at least 10 attempts) in a game. But that’s the only part of Fournette’s outing that fell short of the incredible.
“I knew he was going to go off because he knew he needed time to rest his ankle and the time that he took off and came back, I knew he was going to have a hell of a night,” left tackle K.J. Malone said.
Perhaps he could have had more, but Fournette admittedly was not up to his normal physical form, preventing him from handling a larger workload.
“Every two runs, I was done with,” Fournette said. “I’m telling Darrel [Williams], ‘Darrel, get in the game.’ ”
Regardless, it was still one of the most impressive single-game performances in SEC history. Fournette's 284 yards tie Alabama’s Bobby Humphrey for 10th all time, and his 17.8 yards per carry against the Rebels ranks second behind only the 19.6 LSU’s Harvey Williams posted in 10 carries against Rice in 1987.
It also ended a frustrating period for Fournette, who had never suffered an injury serious enough to force him to miss time like he had this season. He said he “had it all” with the ankle injury, including a bone bruise, high-ankle sprain and low-ankle sprain.
“It was one of the hardest three weeks of my life … man, it’s hard for me,” Fournette said. “It’s very hard for me, especially when everybody wanted me to sit out. I could have, but when you really love football, it’s not about sitting out. I love competing.”
Although LSU’s offense had been exceptional in his two-game absence, Fournette broke out all the greatest hits in showing why NFL scouts drool over his potential as a 2017 draft prospect. He delivered the breakaway runs that had been largely absent with the ankle slowing him down earlier in the season. He also showed off the trademark power running moves that create humiliating nightmares for defenders.
Ole Miss freshman Deontay Anderson got the worst of his introductory encounter with Fournette, first getting destroyed in a brutal collision along the Rebels sideline when Fournette broke loose for a 22-yard reception, then getting stiff-armed to the ground as he attempted to prevent Fournette from turning the corner on his 78-yard touchdown.
“At the end of the day, those licks hurt,” Fournette said. “I’d rather hit him than him hit me.”
Best of all from an LSU perspective, the Tigers’ best player seems to be at his best with the biggest game of the season ahead. Top-ranked Alabama will visit Tiger Stadium on Nov. 5, after both teams take next weekend off.
Alabama has won five in a row against LSU, including a 30-16 victory last season in Tuscaloosa which was LSU’s first loss and started a November spiral in which the Tigers lost three in a row. Fournette entered that game as the runaway favorite to win the Heisman Trophy but ran for just 31 yards on 19 attempts against the Crimson Tide and soon fell behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry in the Heisman pecking order.
We’ve seen plenty of highlight-reel moments from Fournette -- Saturday’s performance might have been the best of them all -- but the Alabama game will be the ultimate measuring stick for the LSU star.
His performance against Ole Miss only raised the stakes for the rematch against the Tide and its suffocating run defense.