By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
It took Leonard Fournette all of two touches to shake off any rust accumulated by three weeks spent on the sideline healing an ailing ankle.
From that point on, Buga was back with a vengeance.
“It was great to have Leonard back, obviously,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “I think he’s the best player in America.”
Fournette ripped off touchdown runs of 59, 76 and 78 yards en route to breaking Alley Broussard’s single-game program rushing record. He surpassed Broussard’s 250-yard mark — set in 2004 against, as fate would have it, Ole Miss — on just his eight carry of the evening.
Fresh off a two-game hiatus, Fournette finished his record-smashing return with 16 carries for 284 rushing yards and those three scores as LSU raced past Ole Miss, 38-21, in front of a raucous crowd at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
“I think a lot of people forgot how good he is,” tight end Colin Jeter said. “He was out to prove some people wrong tonight.”
Fournette’s first two touches of the evening, a handoff and a screen pass, went for losses of one and five yards, respectively. The Tigers found themselves trailing 10-0 after beginning the day with consecutive three-and-outs.
That’s when the fireworks began.
LSU ran the lead toss behind right guard Josh Boutte and replacement fullback Bry’Kiethon Mouton — J.D. Moore, who Fournette calls his “flashlight,” left the game with a stinger — cleared out the hole to spring Fournette down the sideline untouched for a 59-yard score.
His most savage run of the evening didn’t go for six, but instead on a 22-yard gain to close out the first quarter.
Why? It ended with Fournette applying his patented truck stick on freshman defensive back Deontay Anderson, who wound up heels over head as Fournette stepped out of bounds.
“He just manhandled him,” defensive end Davon Godchaux said. “Sometimes I don’t know what DBs are thinking. Like, you really think you’re going to tackle him one-on-one? I guess they have something to prove, but nobody can prove nothing once that man is going 100 miles per hour.”
LSU led 14-13 in the third quarter before Buga went boom again. He took a handoff from Danny Etling and followed pulling center Ethan Pocic around the right side. Once Fournette got a head of steam, he burst through a flurry ill-conceived arm tackles on his way to the end zone.
A turnover allowed Ole Miss to pull even at 21-21 going into halftime with the Rebels getting the ball to begin the third quarter. It felt as though the momentum had again shifted to the visitors.
But the defense forced a three-and-out, and on the first play of the ensuing drive, Fournette again followed Mouton around the right side for a monster scoring romp. The only Rebel who got a hand on him was Anderson, who Fournette stiff-armed to the ground before turning on the after burners.
Through three quarters, Fournette had actually outgained the entire Ole Miss offense 279-258.
“Tonight it kind of felt like Auburn (last season),” center Ethan Pocic said. “It kind of reminded me of that.”
“Usually I get tired running down the field,” left tackle K.J. Malone said. “But when I see him going for six, all my energy comes back and I take off running down the field. I love it. I can’t keep up with him, but I try.”
It’s that burst that had seemingly been missing when Fournette had been able to play this season. Prior to Saturday night, Fournette had scored two touchdowns in three games and hadn’t broken a run of longer than 35 yards.
Fournette admitted after the game what had been apparent to anyone who’d watched him this season. The ankle injury he suffered in fall camp never fully healed, zapping the breakaway speed that makes Fournette the elite home-run hitter that he is. Orgeron and teammates alike professed that, believe them or not, they could see such a monster performance coming from the way Fournette practiced this week.
“He just looked so much faster,” Godchaux said. “I’m not saying he wasn’t fast before, but he just broke away easy.”
The scary part is Fournette said his ankle still isn’t quite 100 percent. Now he’ll have two weeks to rest up before a visit from top-ranked Alabama and the nation’s best defense on Nov. 5.