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Wisconsin readies for task of stopping Heisman favorite Leonard Fournette

MADISON, Wis. -- The highlight reel grows with each passing game, as an exceptional athlete reaches heights few in college football are capable of attaining. LSU running back Leonard Fournette can outrun entire defenses to the end zone, barrel over defensive backs like a Mack truck squashing a mosquito and leave would-be tacklers feeling like stone pillars as he cuts by with precision and power.

He cannot, as far as we know, leap tall buildings in a single bound. Then again, we haven't seen his junior season unfold yet.

Hyperbole abounds for Fournette ahead of one of the most highly anticipated campaigns in recent memory. But it is no exaggeration to suggest Fournette, an early Heisman Trophy front-runner, is perhaps the best college tailback since Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson a decade ago. He possesses a rare combination of shiftiness, speed, strength and football smarts that makes him the obvious center of attention on Saturdays. After he set single-season school records for rushing yards (1,953) and touchdowns (22) last year, it's only natural to wonder: What will he do for an encore?

Wisconsin's defense is about to find out, as the Badgers are next on Fournette's docket. The teams will meet in a seismic season opener Sept. 3 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Wisconsin players have studied plenty of game film and know exactly the type of challenge Fournette presents, and they have no intention of surrendering an inch.

"If we come out technically sound, do our gap responsibilities and everybody executes at a high level, we're hoping to put ourselves in not a highlight film position," Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel said. "We're not going to be on his highlight. We're going to go out there and play good, Wisconsin-style defense. He's a great runner, but are we scared of him? Absolutely not."

Badgers players and coaches have identified several keys to slowing Fournette, most of which come down to executing basic principles. Head coach Paul Chryst said the single most important factor is maintaining pursuit of the ball with multiple players. To allow Fournette even a slight angle risks compromising the entire defensive scheme.

"He's known as a downhill runner," Badgers defensive end Chikwe Obasih said. "But he's pretty impressive coming around the edge. We're making sure we have guys to funnel that back into the inside. You can't arm tackle him, so we're practicing good form. We're making sure we all gang tackle."

All of this is easier said than done, of course. As boxer Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan 'til they get punched in the mouth." In only two seasons, Fournette has lined up an impressive résumé of game-changing, jaw-dropping plays.

As a freshman in 2014, he destroyed Texas A&M defensive back Howard Matthews in the secondary, bulldozing him backward at the 12-yard line to score a touchdown and create loads of Vine and GIF-filled social media posts. A year ago, in one of his most iconic collegiate runs against Auburn, Fournette slipped through a hole at the line of scrimmage, juked a Tigers defender at the 23-yard line, threw a second defender over him at the 16 and cut back on a third defender at the 11 to scoot in for a touchdown. He finished that game with 228 rushing yards and an astounding 12.0 yards per carry -- a school record for a tailback with at least 15 carries in a game.

Fournette became the first SEC player since 1949 to lead the country in rushing average (162.8 yards). During one three-game stretch against Auburn, Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, he averaged 235 yards per game and 9.9 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. He even inspired a rap song, entitled "Leonard Fournette," by New Orleans-based rappers Jay Jones and Hollygrove Keem.

Fournette was so good last season that he gained more rushing yards than 40 FBS teams. Wisconsin's entire team managed one more yard rushing than Fournette.

"He has a great center of gravity, and he's obviously a very powerful runner," Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy said. "That was part of the reason I wanted to put on more weight this offseason was just to be able to match him and give as many blows as I take."

There is no question that Fournette has had his way with most opponents. But if any nonconference team is prepared to handle Fournette in a season opener, it could be Wisconsin. The strength of the Badgers' defense is the front seven, even if the status of last year's leading tackler, T.J. Edwards, is uncertain for the opener because of a broken foot. Six of the Badgers' front seven started a combined 46 games last season, with Obasih and Biegel starting all 13 games. Wisconsin finished No. 4 in the country in rushing defense and second in total defense last season.

Additionally, the Badgers can take some solace in the fact that they have slowed Fournette before. The running back made his college debut against Wisconsin two years ago, when the teams first met in a season opener. He rushed eight times for 18 yards as a backup to Kenny Hilliard. That performance marks Fournette's second-lowest rushing output of his career, but the Badgers understand a different Fournette will be on the field this time.

"He's come a long ways, and we're expecting good things from him," Biegel said. "But we've got a nice, little game plan to stop him."

How effective Wisconsin's game plan is remains to be seen. The hype surrounding Fournette is real, and the Badgers say they're ready to embrace the task of squelching it for one game.

"It's definitely something that I've been looking forward to," Badgers linebacker Chris Orr said. "I'm pretty sure everybody on this defense has been looking forward to it.

"Nobody wants to play some guy that you know you're probably going to dominate or you know that he's not that good of a back. You want to play one of the top backs in the nation. You want to test your limits. You want to see how great you can be."