Take away the starting tailback and leading rusher from just about any team in the country and you leave an offense weakened and perhaps with no chance of matching its normal success.
That’s how deep the purple-and-gold Tigers are in the backfield right now.
Yes, taking the field without Spencer Ware – who tops LSU with 128 carries, 512 rushing yards and is tied with Michael Ford for the team lead with six touchdowns – would require some shuffling by the offensive coaches and likely some outside-the-box thinking.
But the possibility of losing Ware also plants a seed of doubt with the Auburn defensive coaches, who now have to try and pinpoint what trends to look for when the different backs are in the game.
Ware is averaging 4 yards a carry this season with many of his attempts designed for short pickups that bruise and batter the defense. The other backs who will split the workload against Auburn are carving out 4.7 yards a pop.
What won’t happen is LSU abandoning the run. LSU averages 45 running plays a game for 191.1 yards and 19 TDs have come on the ground – all rank second in the SEC behind only Alabama.
Ford and Alfred Blue are the most likely candidates to absorb the carries Ware normally gets – an average of 23.6 in games when the Tigers needed to lean on him (not Northwestern State or Kentucky). Freshmen Terrance Magee and Kenny Hilliard are also on call for situational carries.
What that means is that LSU will have a wide variety of fresh legs to rely on, as well as some different styles to mix into the rushing attack.
There’s been a tendency for the Tigers to be predictable at times with Ware – formations easy to spot from across the line of scrimmage.
A lot of those plays are likely to look the same at their stem, but the AU defense will at least have to think twice before loading up on whoever the back is. Part of that is because of how effective LSU’s play-action game has been. But some of the intrigue will come from the different ways the other backs run.
Ware makes no secret about his goal: Get the ball and seek out contact.
Blue is similar in style, but has not mastered how to adjust on the fly when holes have closed or are not as open as they start out. That gives him an element on unpredictability Ware doesn’t bother with.
Ford’s MO is that he is better on runs to the outside where his speed kicks in once he reaches open space. Without Ware, this is the perfect opportunity for him to show some toughness on inside runs and for the LSU offensive coaches to shake things up and let Ford become an unexpected weapon between the tackles.
That leaves Magee and Hilliard, who have shown brief flashes so far and add some different wrinkles.
Magee is on par with Ford in the speed department, so it’s conceivable he might get a few calls to try and string the defense out on toss plays.
Hilliard has played mostly fullback, which could also fit into LSU’s versatility. Minus Ware, it would be an interesting combination to see Hilliard with any of the other backs in the same backfield. Hilliard doesn’t have the burst of the other available backs, but from a power running standpoint, his style is as close to Ware as anybody in the backfield.
Since his return from a four-game suspension, Jefferson is running more physically – similarly to Ware he is taking the play to the defense instead of trying to evade contact. He is averaging 5 yards a carry and has lost only 4 yards among his 22 carries. What better time and opponent to channel some Cam Newton than against Auburn?
Shepard isn’t going to shift to the backfield by any means and will still get plenty of action at receiver. But it won’t be a shock to see him get the ball a few times on a jet sweep or even pair up with Jefferson on an option or two to give Auburn a full plate.
Keep in mind, AU hasn’t effectively slowed down a team’s running game this season when there has been a variety of options in the backfield.
Utah State ran for 227 yards with three backs getting eight carries or more, Mississippi State gashed AU for 333 yards with three players toting the ball at least 11 times (including quarterback Chris Relf with 27 attempts), three Clemson backs had seven carries or more on the way to a 238-yard output and Arkansas leaned on two backs for 28 of 31 rushing attempts.
In other words, there weren’t a lot of different options and that’s something LSU has plenty of, making the absence of Ware much easier to manage this week.