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LSU O-line hits stride after clearing early hurdles

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The problems that LSU's offensive line encountered early in the season seemed as numerous as Leonard Fournette scholarship offers.

  • The Tigers weren't healthy.

  • They played without suspended senior center Elliott Porter for the first two games.

  • Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes needed several games to settle on a starting right guard -- a job that eventually went to sophomore Ethan Pocic.

  • Opposing defenses regularly stacked the box because LSU's passing game isn't exactly intimidating.

It was a mess, and it turned the offensive line -- one that returned four starters from 2013 -- into an early disappointment on an offense that was loaded with inexperience elsewhere.

"At first our chemistry, it was kind of off," said Fournette, LSU's freshman tailback who sometimes struggled to find running room behind the line early in the season. "But as the season's going on, we're getting stronger and we're learning our weaknesses as a whole and just getting better at it."

No doubt about that. Last Saturday's 264-yard rushing performance against Ole Miss, which boasted the nation's No. 5 run defense (97.1 ypg) entering the game, was the line's crowning achievement to date. Although turnovers hampered the Tigers throughout the night, Fournette (23 carries for 113 yards), Terrence Magee (12-74) and Kenny Hilliard (12-63) all found regular creases to exploit against the Rebels.

The Tigers' fourth-quarter drive was an offensive lineman's dream. Thirteen plays, 95 yards, and each of the first 12 plays was a run. LSU coach Les Miles later described it as "a middle-1970s drive."

Finally, once the Tigers had driven to the Ole Miss 3, quarterback Anthony Jennings faked a dive handoff to Hilliard, rolled right and hit wide-open tight end Logan Stokes with the game-winning touchdown.

The Rebels never saw it coming, and why would they?

"I think that [the 12 straight runs] had a lot to do with it," Stokes said, "especially because during a lot of those runs when I was in, I was the back-side tight end cutting off or cutting the guy or doing something like that. So I think that when I sold it and I think that the fact that everybody up front sold it just how we had been learning those plays, it just worked out perfect for me."

This might have been the line's most impressive performance, but it had been building to this point for weeks. Many LSU fans' eyes probably rolled when Miles said the line gave a strong performance in a 41-7 loss at Auburn -- it did, but LSU got down so quickly that depending solely on the run didn't make sense -- but its improvement has been more obvious in the last three games.

Florida came in allowing barely more than 100 yards on the ground when LSU ran for 195 -- including 140 and two touchdowns from Fournette -- against the Gators. The momentum continued the following week when LSU abused Kentucky for 303 rushing yards on 51 attempts.

"We knew last week they figured out who they want to be," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said after LSU handed his Rebels their first loss of the season. "That's the best offensive line we've played and their running backs are very, very good."

This coming from a coach whose team has already faced Alabama, LSU's next opponent, which typically boasts one of the conference's top offensive lines.

The Crimson Tide's defense isn't too shabby, either, as it currently ranks second nationally against the run (78.1 ypg). Moving the ball on the ground against Alabama will be another measuring stick of the line's recent progress.

"From Florida and on, I think we've played a lot better. Auburn, actually, we played a lot better," Porter said. "We keep on improving and keep on being together. That's what we've done a good job at in practice, in the game, talking in meetings -- everything is coming together as one."

It took longer than expected for that to occur, but LSU's line is finally playing at the high level many expected during the summer. The line combined with a stingy defense to lead the Tigers to the Ole Miss upset and will certainly be one of the driving forces if LSU takes down Alabama on Nov. 8.

"Hats off to our offensive linemen," said Stokes, who joined the Tigers last year from Northeast Mississippi Community College. "I remember looking at Elliott Porter one time and just telling him, ‘Last drive, man. Give us all you got.' … For me to come in from a junior college and just walk in and get to be around those guys and see how it's done, it's a great feeling. I don't ever question us when we get in the fourth quarter because of the leadership we have up front."