For most of this season, a lot of focus has fallen on how LSU would fare and what the Tigers would need to do to adjust when Leonard Fournette was limited or out because of a nagging pair of ankle injuries.
Fair enough. When you have one of the best running backs in the country, that’s a legitimate concern.
Against Florida on Saturday, though, LSU found out just how tough it was to address those same kind of concerns with the player who is just as valuable to that set of Tigers, if not more so.
In a punch-in-the-gut 16-10 loss to the Gators, themselves a wounded bunch, LSU had to deal with a number of different hurdles and turning points. None proved to be tougher to overcome than when inside linebacker Kendell Beckwith had to be helped off the field with a knee injury in the first half.
Beckwith is the thickly-built heart of an LSU defense that has been as good this season as any time since 2011 and maybe going back to 2003.
A 6-foot-3, 250-pound thumper in the middle, Beckwith tends to be where opponent running plays go to die. Because of his physical style and ability to level bruising hits, backs and offensive coordinators often look for different avenues that are anywhere close to where No. 52 is prowling.
He came into the day with 90 tackles but produced only one before his left knee got twisted as he attacked a ball carrier.
Take that piece of the defense away and the playbook expands, and that’s precisely what seemed to happen for Florida.
With Beckwith on the field, the Gators ran for 20 yards and rarely got much more real estate after initial contact. They finished the game with 126 yards rushing, but it was more than just the total. It was also the timing, how Florida ran without having to contend with Beckwith and the attitude behind those yards.
In the second half on two drives that helped set the tone, the Gators ran for 37 yards and then 64 on 11 carries on a series that yielded the go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter. Unfettered in the middle with Beckwith out, Florida’s tandem of Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine ran there and more damaging, thrived after contact.
Through a combination of missed tackles and yards-after-contact, Scarlett gashed LSU for 80 yards on the second half, often dragging Tigers with him past the first-down marker to extend drives.
“We knew Scarlett was a strong runner, but we didn’t know he was that strong of a runner,” LSU’s Arden Key said. “He kept moving his feet, and we couldn’t wrap up. I don’t know what it was this game, but we just couldn’t wrap him up.”
With an effective and methodical running game to operate with, Florida pieced together a fourth-quarter march that gobbled up 7:45 – that is where the 11 carries for 64 yards came – which effectively neutralized the Tiger Stadium crowd and forced LSU into scramble mode.
That added up to an uncharacteristic performance by a Tigers’ defense that still was stingy enough to not give up more than one offensive touchdown for the eighth time in 10 games.
And a lot of the struggling was because of who wasn’t on the field.
“We didn’t have the big hits like (Beckwith) normally has,” Key said. “Just the big hits and the energy he brings from not talking, just playing football.”
Added LSU coach Ed Orgeron, “Going into the game, we knew Florida’s backs were as good as we face. We emphasized tackling all week. I think missing Kendell in there hurts us a little bit but uncharacteristic.”