BATON ROUGE, La. — No. 25 LSU's offense has discovered a knack for big plays even without Leonard Fournette, and just in time for a series of matchups wit ranked Southeastern Conference opponents.
Now the Tigers are curious to see if they won't fill up highlight shows even more if their fearsome running back returns from his ankle injury for Saturday night's clash with No. 23 Mississippi.
Much of the credit for LSU's newfound explosiveness through the air — and on the ground — has gone to new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, a former Tigers quarterback who was promoted to his current post when Ed Orgeron took over as interim coach after the firing of Les Miles in late September.
"Coach Ensminger is aggressive. We knew he was going to take his shots down the field," said LSU receiver D.J. Chark, who had an 80-yard touchdown catch and 19-yard scoring run in a 45-10 victory over Southern Mississippi last weekend. "The wide receivers did something Saturday we've been waiting for. Coach gave us the opportunity to make plays. You never know when those opportunities are going to come. We didn't fall on our faces. It really worked out for us."
In the two games since LSU's coaching change, LSU has scored seven touchdowns of 20 or more yards. Five of those came in the second half last week, and three of them went for more than 60 yards. Some of the big gains have come from running back Derrius Guice, a fast, elusive ball carrier who is finding bigger gaps in the defense because of the way LSU's offense has begun to spread defenses out. He's had touchdown runs of 61, 42 and 37 yards in the past two games.
"Offensively they are different right now," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "They give you a lot of different sets, staying balanced, using the skill players at receiver; whether it is through speed sweeps, quick throws or shots down the field. Their run game has always been good — and still is."
It appears Fournette will be back in the mix after practicing this week, but chances are he won't resume the workhorse role that saw him delivering or taking one pounding after another while often running into the teeth of defenses that were aligned primarily to stop him. Too many other skill players on LSU's offense have emerged in recent weeks to stop spreading the ball around.
"Given the success that everyone's having, I'm pretty sure we're going to work him in strategically," senior receiver Travin Dural said. "We're not going to overload him."
A grin then spread across Dural's face as he added, "but we don't have a problem giving it to him every now and then."
Dural also noted that the mere sight of Fournette in the backfield will likely motivate opponents to regularly stack defenders close to the line of scrimmage.
"Everyone knows what he's capable of. Just having him there, his presence, it opens up a whole different world," Dural said. "It means more opportunities for the receivers (to get open). I'm happy to have him back and have him healthy. I'm looking forward to seeing him run again."
Meanwhile, Ed Orgeron made it clear he's looking forward to seeing Ensminger call his share of deep passing plays, saying last weekend's performance should have let everyone know that LSU no longer will hesitate to take shots down the field.
LSU quarterback Danny Etling wasn't about to complain after throwing touchdown passes of 80, 63 and 23 yards — the latter two going to receiver Malachi Dupre .
"The long pass plays showed the talent we have at wide receiver. We have a guy like D.J. who has the speed to outrun anybody. Then, Malachi popped open and made his big play," Etling said, adding that he trusts the 6-foot-4 Dupre "to get to the 50-50 balls and make the catch."
For Dural, LSU's recent explosiveness has been refreshing, but hardly a surprise.
"I knew it was very possible. We have the quarterbacks. We have the receivers. We have the running backs," Dural said. "We finally put it together and hit a couple of deep balls and once that happened, one deep ball turned into two. Coach O says big plays fuel emotion. And once we had one or two of them they just kept on coming."
This article was written by Brett Martel from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.