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LSU shows there is more in its arsenal than just Leonard Fournette

BATON ROUGE, La. -- For weeks we’ve wondered whether LSU was capable of moving the ball consistently if an opponent slowed down running back Leonard Fournette.

Some strong defenses are ahead on the schedule. What will happen when those opponents filter defenders toward the line of scrimmage to limit the damage Fournette creates on the ground, forcing the Tigers to attempt to move the ball in other ways?

Although South Carolina didn’t exactly force LSU to abandon the run on Saturday -- the Tigers rushed for 396 yards, after all -- LSU’s 45-24 win over the Gamecocks was the first time this season where it featured anything approaching balance between run and pass.

“Everybody knew we could run the ball, but we had to come out and prove ourselves at the quarterback position and at the receiver position, and I feel like we’ve done that today,” said LSU receiver Travin Dural, who had four catches for 109 yards. “We were very balanced.”

Some LSU players have bristled at the notion that Fournette was their only consistent offensive weapon, but that was the case in the first four games. In those games, Fournette accounted for 51 percent of the Tigers’ offensive production (880 of 1,726 total yards) and scored 11 of their 18 touchdowns.

But against South Carolina, Fournette accounted for a comparatively miniscule 29.3 percent of the production (183 of 624 total yards and just one of the Tigers’ six touchdowns. While this represented Fournette’s “worst” performance of the fall, multiple skill players enjoyed their best outings of the season while he watched from the sideline for the last quarter and a half.

Brandon Harris passed for 228 yards -- the first 200-yard game of his career -- with Dural and Malachi Dupre (74 receiving yards and a touchdown) both having their best games of the season.

Running backs Derrius Guice (161 rushing yards, one touchdown) and Darrel Williams (61 yards, two touchdowns) also had nice outings, with most of their production coming after Fournette made his final run of the afternoon.

Granted, South Carolina’s generosity on defense -- the Gamecocks rank last in the SEC in total defense, allowing 428 yards per game -- helped in that regard, but Saturday still served as a breakthrough moment for a passing game that had been virtually nonexistent.

“I would rather win, be 5-0, rather than having 45 pass attempts,” Harris said. “Now if I was asked to do that, the stuff that you see all these other guys around the country doing, I would do it and we wouldn’t have a problem doing it. But that’s not what I’m asked to do. I’m asked to manage the game.”

Prior to Saturday, LSU’s passing game hadn’t exactly functioned with consistency. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Harris completed 29.6 percent of his passes of at least 10 yards and averaged just 7.6 yards per attempt on those throws in the first four games. Against South Carolina, he was 5-for-8 on such throws, including two touchdowns, and averaged 16 yards per attempt.

“The performance last week was still sitting in the back of our head,” Dupre said, referring to last week’s win against Eastern Michigan where LSU receivers dropped multiple passes. “We knew we had to come out today and build the faith that we can pass the ball and we deserve the respect.”

They did that against South Carolina, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron also found ways to spread out the defense and create running room.

When they ran their traditional offensive sets against South Carolina with Harris lined up under center, Fournette ran 14 times for just 37 yards as the Gamecocks typically loaded the box with at least eight defenders. Fournette ran six times out of a shotgun formation -- South Carolina had six defenders in the box on each of those runs -- and accumulated 121 rushing yards, including an 87-yard touchdown.

As Harris noted, the Fournette-heavy offensive scheme has been a winning formula, so the Tigers won't change anything until an opponent forces them to do so. Saturday was the first time they showed they can do that, and perhaps it will serve as a blueprint for the times when defenses make stopping Fournette their first, second and third priorities.

That might happen as soon as this weekend, when Harris expects to need timely completions to complement Fournette’s running against Florida's stout defense.

“When it’s called, and I’m almost positive it’ll be called [against Florida] when we have to throw the ball, we have to sling it and do the things we have to do against other teams that may try to come out and think they can stop Leonard,” Harris said. “But you’ve seen with eight, nine, 10 in the box, he can still run it and take it for 80. But whenever they call us and they tell us, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do this,’ we’ll do it and we wouldn’t have a problem with it.”