Looking for room to run

Breaking down the matchup of LSU's running backs vs. Alabama's linebackers

With all of his players, LSU coach Les Miles is likely to urge them to get a good night’s rest before Saturday’s showdown with Alabama.


The message might be emphasized a bit more to the Tigers’ running backs.


As much as any group on LSU’s roster, the backs have their work cut out against the Crimson Tide’s brick-wall defense, particularly a linebacking corps as good as any in the country.


There’s some pressure on the LSU offensive line, which is tasked with trying to carve out whatever breathing room it can on the ground.


But the backs have to come out with the notion of making Alabama’s tacklers miss, especially if they get into open spaces and find one-on-one chances against the Tide’s physical linebackers.


“This is definitely going to be the toughest challenge we’ve faced,” tailback Michael Ford said. “They have big, strong, physical guys and we’re still going to try to run it down their throats and that’s going to take a lot of work.”

Michael Ford: Will he get a chance to use his speed?


That work load will, as always, be shared and LSU is expected to get a huge boost with the return of leading rusher Spencer Ware after he was suspended for the Auburn game for allegedly failing a drug test.


Ware (512 yards, 6 TDs) is back and should certainly be fresh, his last action coming against Tennessee on Oct. 15 when he bulled his way for 80 yards on 23 carries.


Like Jacob Hester, Charles Scott and Stevan Ridley before him, Ware sets the tone with his physicality and willingness to take the action to the defense instead of avoiding contact.


Ford (441 yards, 6 TDs), Alfred Blue (252, 4 TDs) and most recently Kenny Hilliard (65 yards, 2 TDs vs. Auburn) have also taken cues from Ware and have adopted his physical style. Those three add different elements, especially Ford with his outside running ability.


There’s no debate about which back makes the LSU backs go, though.


“All those guys are pretty good, but Spencer has something else, something you can’t explain,” left tackle Chris Faulk said. “It fires us up when he runs behind us as hard as we’re blocking in front of him.”


That blocking will be a key and the line will have reinforcements with fullbacks James Stampley, J.C. Copeland and Hilliard.

J.C. Copeland (44): 280-pound fullback will get chances to take on Crimson Tide LBs


Those three have all played key roles in the running game this season and will be involved against Alabama to try and neutralize the best set of linebackers LSU will see this season.


“They’re very powerful at linebacker,” Ford said. “We haven’t faced a team that’s big across the board at linebacker like they are.”


Big and talented.


The two sturdy building blocks of the Tide’s defense are middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower and jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw.


Hightower leads Alabama with 48 tackles and has recorded six tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries. Upshaw tops the team with 11½ tackles for loss and 4½ sacks. Nico Johnson is the Tide’s fourth-leading tackler with 24 stops.


Alabama has allowed only one opponent to top 100 yards rushing as a team this season (Penn State with 107), and the Tide is giving up only 44.9 rushing yards a game.


By contrast, Ware averages 73.1 yards a game on the ground and Ford 55.1. Ware has topped 100 yards twice and has 80 or more in three others games. Ford’s 82-yard day against Auburn was his third of the season with 80 yards or more.


Last season LSU racked up 225 rushing yards in a 24-21 triumph against the Tide, aided by punter Josh Jasper’s 29-yard fake punt run and tight end DeAngelo Peterson’s 23-yard end-around.


“We have the talent to run the ball against any defense we face,” Ford said. “We just have to come out and execute like we have all season.”


LSU running backs vs. Alabama linebackers

Projected starters


TB Spencer Ware (5-11, 223, So.)


TB Michael Ford (5-10, 215, So.)

FB J.C. Copeland (6-1, 280, So.)


FB James Stampley (5-10, 239, Sr.)


SLB Jerrell Harris (6-3, 242, Sr.)

MLB Dont’a Hightower (6-4, 260, Jr.)

WLB Nico Johnson (6-3, 245, Jr.)

JACK Courtney Upshaw (6-2, 265, Sr.)


James Stampley


Copeland/Stampley vs.
Upshaw and Hightower

The LSU tailbacks will get all the glamour for whatever success the Tigers have running the ball, but the blue-collar work of Stampley and Copeland is where that success will be based against Alabama’s defense. Ware and Ford will have some opening created up front by the offensive line, but for the kind of runs that will move the chains and allow the Tigers to maintain possession, it’s vital that the backs reach the linebacker level and beyond. That’s where Stampley and Copeland have to thrive – sealing Hightower inside when needed or kicking Harris, Johnson and especially Upshaw out long enough for Ware and Ford to slither through for whatever yardage they can grind out.


Tiger Blitz Top Stories