Ford, LSU backs strike a balance

With sophomore Michael Ford, the Tigers offense have benefited from a diverse and deep backfield this season.

For this pop quiz, even LSU running back Michael Ford was unprepared.

The question: Who is the Tigers' leading rusher this season heading into the BCS Championship Game showdown with Alabama?

Yep, it's Ford.

The third-year sophomore from Leesville has accumulated 755 yards on 123 carries this season with 7 touchdowns.

"I was as shocked as everybody else," Ford said with a smile. "I don't keep track of all that. We all just work hard to push each other and just try to make each other better."

In his second season on the field, there's no doubt that Ford has made huge strides.

As a redshirt freshman, Ford saw sporadic action last season behind Stevan Ridley with 45 carries for 244 yards and three scores. Ford has been rumored to be in and out of LSU coach Les Miles' doghouse since he arrived for fumbling problems and an inability to perfect and/or embrace his duties as a blocker in the backfield.

Despite the problems Ford has had – real or perceived – he has persevered and grown into one of the SEC's best backs. He led the Tigers in rushing three times this season and piled up 72 yards or more in six games, with a season- and carer-best 96 against Oregon and Arkansas.

That Ford is the surprising leader of the LSU rushing corps is the product of how deep the Tigers' backfield has been this season.

In the past, Miles has tended to settle on a go-to-back and has ridden him. In three of Miles' first six seasons with LSU, a back has topped 1,100 yards – Jacob Hester with 1,103 in 2007, Charles Scott with 1,174 in 2008 and Ridley with 1,147 last year.

This season, more than ever before, Miles and the offensive coaches seized advantage of the Tigers' depth and versatility in the backfield instead of leaning on one back.

Not counting quarterback Jordan Jefferson, four Tigers have carried the ball at least 57 times. Spencer Ware began the season as the starter and has toted the ball more than anybody else – 174 attempts – for 700 yards and is tied with Kenny Hilliard for the team lead with 8 TDs. Alfred Blue is third with 539 yards and has also scored 7 touchdowns.

The net result is a rushing attack that has generated 215.2 yards a game and 5 yards a carry. Not counting sacks and team rushes, those numbers creep up to 225.5 and 5.5.

"The reality is that at different times, there's a change of speed and freshness brought to the line of scrimmage with a back that comes off the bench who understands what to do and understands the game," Miles said.

Neither Miles nor running backs coach Frank Wilson is shy about juggling the look in the backfield, particularly if there's any hint of lethargy on offense.

The hot-hand theory has always been key to Miles' philosophy, but once a back has established consistency, the LSU coach hasn't strayed far.

Until this season.

Ware was getting the bulk of the carries when the season got rolling, especially early in games when the Tigers were trying to assert their power along the line of scrimmage. Ford was the primary change-of-pace back who has exceled when LSU has used the speed option with Jefferson. Blue is a hybrid of those two and has been especially effective later in games when the defense is worn down.

And Hilliard has emerged as a short-yardage blaster in the second half of the season, with most of his 320 yards and 8 TDs down the stretch. A freshman from Patterson, Hilliard is cut from the same mold as Scott and Ridley – capable of turning short bruising runs into big plays because of his power and agility in a 245-pound package.

While there is a situational pecking order in place as the basic framework, Wilson and Miles also won't hesitate to stick with one back for stretches when the time is right.

"If you're rolling in a game, Coach is going to keep the hot hand going," Ford said.

"During the game, you've got your helmet buckled and you'd better be ready and walking beside Coach."

It's not just games when that competition kicks in either. Wilson, like Miles, puts a ton of stock on how the backs perform during practice.

Whether it's basic seven-on-seven drills, blitz pickup work or scrimmages, Wilson demands that every back play every down like it's the one that will decide who gets the next snap.

"You miss one cut and the next guy comes in and makes the right cut," Ford said. "It makes you so much better because you seize the moment on one carry. You better make that one snap the best snap."

For 13 games, the revolving door in the backfield has kept defenses guessing and has kept the backs' legs fresh. Offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa said when the Tigers were preparing for the SEC Championship Game, he was amazed at how much speed and explosion all the backs had left in their tanks that late in the season.

Now with the rematch with Alabama looming, a second chance at the best defense the Tigers have faced all season and the one that stifled their running game the most, those fresh legs all figure to play a role.

Some different wrinkles might be in store as well.

Kenny Hilliard: 320 yards and he's tied for the team lead with 8 TDs.

With Hilliard's emergence as a runner late in the season, there were a handful of occasions when he, Ford and Jefferson formed a three-headed monster in the backfield that could potentially give any defense fits.

Hilliard had already established himself as an effective blocker and short-yardage weapon as a part-time fullback. Now with proof that he can carve out yards if he gets beyond the first level, Hilliard is more than a one-trick pony and his skills complement whoever he lines up with, especially if it's Ford.

"You put me and Kenny in there and anything is going to be possible," Ford said, calling the combination of him, Hilliard and Jefferson scary.

"It opens everything up. We can run between the tackles, we can go option or we can throw it to Kenny. You don't know what's coming at you."

Well, that's not entirely true.

Whether it's Ford and Hilliard together, or any of the four tailbacks paired with one of the Tigers' two destructive fullbacks, James Stampley or J.C. Copeland, the defense knows all too well what's coming.

"We run the ball and we run it hard," Ford said. "That's just who we are We're going to pound away at you."

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