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Alabama bottled up Leonard Fournette, sunk his Heisman audition

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Leonard Fournette sat beside his teammates, his helmet off, his big, beaming eyes void of emotion. The clock ticked away. That smile of his, the one that shows his braces and reminds us that he’s still a boy in a man’s body, was gone. He stared into space, silent. Meanwhile, Derrick Henry ran a 38th time, crossing the 200-yard mark as Alabama finished off a 30-16 win over LSU.

Fournette stayed on the bench for a moment when the game ended and fans started in on another rendition of “Rammer Jammer.” He’d struggled for every one of his 31 yards. The defense got to him before he ever had a chance. Houdini would have drowned in the straitjacket and leg irons Alabama coach Nick Saban devised for him. Fournette ducked and dodged and lowered his shoulder fighting for yards, but he couldn’t escape. There wasn’t anything he could do to keep his team unbeaten.

Fournette stood and tried to cross the field. Alabama linebackers Reggie Ragland and Shaun Hamilton stopped him to pay respect, patting him on the back. Kirby Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator who helped set the trap for Fournette, made a point to find him and wish him the best. He nodded and kept walking as cameras flashed in his face. Offering nothing in response, he left the field and entered the visitor’s locker room, the one so coldly named “The Fail Room” thanks to a contribution from Alabama donor James Fail.

A failure, Fournette was not. Not if you asked his coach, Les Miles, who was sullen in his postgame comments. Not even a player like Fournette could prevent Miles' fifth straight loss to Alabama. The facade of the Mad Hatter was stripped away as Miles stood at the podium and said, “There’s going to be a next year.”

“I’d like to tell you there were well-blocked holes. I’d like to tell you we gave Leonard an opportunity to run,” he said. “But I don’t believe we did that.”

Was it the line’s fault then? “It may have been some of the things we did and it may have been Alabama,” Miles said.

It was both. Saying it was a self-imposed failure would be taking away from what Alabama did in making seven tackles for loss and limiting LSU to 54 rushing yards. It would be foolish to say that A'Shawn Robinson and his fellow D-linemen didn’t impose their will on LSU. They did, and then some.

There wasn’t a gap to be had by Fournette. When the front seven was bottled up, it was the Alabama secondary chasing him down. Even DBs Geno Matias-Smith and Eddie Jackson got free shots on Fournette. Coming into the game, LSU led the country in rushing yards before contact. Against Alabama, Fournette was contacted at or behind the line on 11 of 19 carries.

His quarterback, Brandon Harris, didn’t help him either. Alabama practically dared him to throw, dropping a safety into the box routinely, and he came up empty. Before the game, he was completing 70 percent of his passes and hadn’t thrown an interception. Against Alabama, he completed 21 percent of his attempts and had a crucial interception to start the second half.

“It was huge in the game -- maybe the turning point,” Saban said.

Regardless, there weren’t any maybes when it came to how well his defense played. Even Saban, who is prone to under-reaction, described his defense’s performance as “phenomenal.” When he saw LSU go to a zone run the first time, he was paying careful attention. He said he “got a good feeling” when he watched the noseguard “flathead the center” and the defensive end “knock the guy back” and the linebacker “fill.”

“Those guys did a great job,” he said.

LSU, meanwhile, was at a loss. Offensive tackle Vadal Alexander had no answers. He thought they executed the game plan well. But, in the end, “We couldn’t get yards.”

As for Fournette, his mindset after the game was unclear. LSU didn’t make him available to speak to the media. He left the locker room, boarded one of the school’s idling buses and headed back to Baton Rouge.

His teammates said he wasn’t frustrated. He was down like everyone else after a loss, they said, but nothing beyond that.

“He was fine,” said safety Jamal Adams. “He’s the best back in the country, everybody knows that. Leonard is going to be Leonard. And some people are going to have things to say about him and the negative talk, but he’s going to be fine and this team is going to be fine.”

Knowing him like they do, teammates said they think he will be motivated by what happened.

“He’s going to be hungry,” Adams said.

Alexander said he expects “a really big performance” on Saturday against Arkansas.

“It’s not just him,” he said. “But if I know the guys on this offense, this week coming up is going to be one of our best weeks.”

If LSU expects to get back into the playoff hunt, it has to be. After being taken to the woodshed by Alabama, they have to respond.