University of Missouri

LSU’s volatility creates preparation headache for Missouri defense

LSU running back Leonard Fournette (right) has rushed for at least 100 yards in 15 of the last 17 games he’s played, but he will be a game-time decision against Missouri because of a nagging ankle injury.
LSU running back Leonard Fournette (right) has rushed for at least 100 yards in 15 of the last 17 games he’s played, but he will be a game-time decision against Missouri because of a nagging ankle injury. The Associated Press

When former LSU coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron were fired Sunday, first-year Missouri defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross felt the shockwaves more than 700 miles away inside a meeting room at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex.

“It’s frustrating for us,” Cross said, speaking for MU’s defensive staff, “because we sit around and talk about what ifs, and you can get away from your game plan of stopping No. 7. … That’s their engine. That’s their workhorse. We know it; they know it.”

No. 7 is junior running back Leonard Fournette, one of the most dynamic talents in college football. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting last season and has rushed for at least 100 yards in 15 of the last 17 games he’s played.

Unfortunately, that plan also might be out the window, because interim LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Wednesday that Fournette is a game-time decision because of a nagging ankle injury.

Orgeron, who was elevated from defensive-line coach after Miles’ dismissal, has indicated that he prefers a pro-style offense, which relies more on the passing game.

Tight ends coach Steve Ensminger has taken over the offense with input from new offensive analyst Steve Kragthorpe — a former head coach at Tulsa and Louisville who served as a special assistant to Miles and LSU football’s chief of staff.

“We’re putting in new plays, a new offense,” Orgeron said. “You can’t put in a lot in one week, but we’re trying as best as we can. … You’ll see a couple of things different, but we have to keep the same terminology, keep the same system, because that’s what our young men know, and just tweak what we need to tweak.”

Mizzou can analyze all the film it wants from last season or from LSU’s 2-2 start, including losses against Wisconsin and Auburn, but there’s no way to know exactly what the defense will be tasked with stopping come 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

LSU has averaged only 21 points per game, which ranks 13th in the SEC, and has run the ball on more than 58 percent of its plays from scrimmage this season.

Whether that or any tendency LSU has shown through the season’s first games will hold remains a mystery — and one Mizzou has to manage, but is being careful not to get too enraptured by.

Does it present a massive challenge?

“It does, because you start defending the unknown and you end up defending nothing,” Cross said.

Mizzou’s game plan will center on stopping Fournette — or, if he doesn’t play, bottling up sophomore running back Derrius Guice, whose 8.24-yard average per carry actually dwarfs the gimpy Fournette’s 5.76 average this season.

“Anything else that they try to come up with in a short week, we’ve got to adjust to it on game day,” Cross said. “We’re not going to chase ghosts. We’re going to defend what we know and prepare for a couple of other things.”

Perhaps MU can take some cues from Orgeron’s eight-game stint as interim coach at Southern California in 2013.

“We’d like to do a lot of things we did at Miami (Fla.) and USC,” said Orgeron, who served on Jimmy Johnson’s Hurricanes staff in 1988 and on Pete Carroll’s Trojans staff in 2001-04. “ … We have a lot of ideas, but you can’t change the system in one week.”

Missouri has success two weeks ago against another of the SEC’s elite backs, limiting Georgia’s Nick Chubb to 63 yards in 19 carries, but freshman quarterback Jacob Eason threw for more than 300 yards and rallied the Bulldogs to a late victory.

LSU has some firepower at wide receiver, especially with senior Travin Dural and junior Malachi Dupre on the outside, but only Orgeron and his staff know how comfortable they’ll be putting the game on junior Purdue transfer Danny Etling’s right arm.

“It’s anybody’s guess right now,” MU cornerbacks coach Greg Brown said. “Nobody knows exactly what plays are going to be called. … All you can do is go base your preparations on what you’ve seen on film and make your best guesstimate and try to prepare your best on what you think you may see.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer

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