STARKVILLE, Miss. — As a rollicking Saturday night gave way to a quiet Sunday morning, LSU tailback Leonard Fournette beamed in a hallway beneath Davis Wade Stadium. Fournette had just single-handedly carried the Tigers to a thrilling 21–19 victory over Mississippi State, scoring all three LSU touchdowns.
After punishing the Bulldogs' defense for a career-high 159 yards on 28 carries, Fournette was a paragon of humility. He thanked his coaches for developing him, his line for blocking and even urged reporters to explore the “great story" of his trusty fullback, walk-on-turned starter J.D. Moore. The only time Fournette got even a little bit cocky was when he was asked if the victory was the Tigers' way of announcing themselves as SEC contenders.
“Yes it is, most definitely," Fournette said. “We have the players and we have the coaches. It's time."
Is it too early to pump up LSU as an SEC favorite? Well, after Arkansas lost to Toledo, Tennessee collapsed against Oklahoma and Auburn narrowly avoided one of the worst losses in school history (to FCS Jacksonville State), it's hard not to consider the Tigers as at least being in the league's top half. Alabama played two quarterbacks on Saturday, one of Ole Miss's best players is in NCAA limbo and Georgia still lacks a playmaker at quarterback.
After Mississippi State missed a 52-yard field goal as time expired to give LSU the victory, here's the safest takeaway: The game showcased both the Tigers' argument for SEC contention and exposed the reasons that they may endure another pedestrian season.
LSU can be considered a microcosm of the SEC itself—generally formidable yet susceptible to underachievement thanks to lack of proven quarterback play.
After the game, coach Les Miles stressed that the Tigers really missed not playing against McNeese State last week (inclement weather had forced the game's cancellation). Against the Bulldogs, LSU made first-game mistakes, including getting flagged for nine penalties. With only one game in the books, and considering that Mississippi State was picked to finish last in the SEC West, it would be foolish to draw any conclusions about the Tigers beyond the fact that their victory allowed them to flip a potentially ugly narrative.
Last year LSU sputtered to 4–4 in the SEC (8–5 overall) and got blown out by Auburn, dominated by the Bulldogs and shut out by the Razorbacks. Had LSU lost on Saturday, the Tigers would have been under serious pressure to beat Auburn next weekend. A loss to the Tigers and the whispers about whether it was time for Miles to go, and if LSU could afford his $15 million buyout, would have started.
There is a segment of the Tigers' followers who believe that Miles isn't maximizing the LSU brand, recruiting base and roster.—even though he's won a national title and 78% of his games in Baton Rouge. But in one wild day, Auburn, which failed to figure out a way to stop the zone read against Jacksonville State, appeared very beatable. The Tigers will wobble into Death Valley next weekend as one of the country's most enigmatic teams. With a victory, Miles can silence all the whispers about his job security.
“Nobody can sleep in the SEC," Fournette said on Saturday. “Auburn is not a sleeping team. That's kind of all over the SEC."
There was plenty to like about LSU on Saturday night. The offensive line, led by left tackle Vadal Alexander, looks like a high-end SEC outfit. The secondary played tight coverage for three quarters. The Tigers also averted a collapse to win a tough road game after entering the fourth quarter with a 21–6 lead.
The biggest reason for optimism is Fournette, who did some early jockeying up to the top of Heisman Trophy lists with his resplendent blend of power and speed. Fournette came to Baton Rouge as the country's No. 1 recruit, and Miles did nothing dim the hype by comparing him to Michael Jordan before he took a collegiate snap. Fournette backed up all the bold talk against the Bulldogs, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
Few tailbacks in recent college football history have Fournette's combination of dexterity and power—his feet are both balletic in space and relentless in pushing piles between the tackles. If he gets tackled and doesn't fall forward this season, it's more likely to be because of a gravitational anomaly rather than a defender lining him up one-on-one.
But to contend in the SEC, Miles acknowledges that LSU needs more diversity on offense. “There's some other good players on our team, too," he said after the game. “We need to make sure we get the ball in their hands. If you become one-dimensional, you become very easy to stop."
The biggest revelation for the Tigers on Saturday night was that the quarterback position wasn't a liability, something that couldn't be said for much of last season, when Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings were bumbling their way through the schedule.
Harris looked sharp at times on Saturday night, completing 9-of-14 passes for 71 yards. But the training wheels are still on, and Miles knows he needs to figure out ways to get electric receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupree more touches.
There are still plenty of questions. LSU couldn't stop Mississippi State in the second half once the Bulldogs sped things up, and the Tigers could struggle with Auburn's up-tempo offense . But the biggest takeaway was that for Fournette and Harris the game has slowed down. And that puts LSU on the inside track to take an early lead in the SEC West. On a bad day for the SEC, one of its best brands hinted at a revival. But like the league itself, there are still a lot of questions remaining.
Kent State's April Goss proves she just one of the guys
When Kent State coach Paul Haynes divides up his squad each year for an off-season program called the “Winter Olympics," his guys clamor to have one player on their team. The different teams not only earn points in physical challenges, but also through academics, attendance and community service.
That's why redshirt senior kicker April Goss was a star for the Golden Flashes long before she burst on the national scene on Saturday night by booting an extra point in the second quarter of her team's 45–13 blowout of Delaware State. Goss's PAT made her the first woman in 12 years to score for an FBS program, and the second all-time, but she's been making a difference for Kent State since her arrival four years ago.
Goss has one of the team's highest GPAs (3.9), is the first on the field for practice and the last to leave, and volunteers to help battered women, a topic she's also helped address with her teammates. She's had such a profound impact on the Golden Flashes that third-year coach Paul Haynes put her on scholarship a year ago.
“She deserves everything," Haynes says. “She works her tail off. She's one of the hardest workers on the team. She's as tough as tough can be. She's not one that wants special treatment. She's not one that bails out. She does everything."
That means Goss does the same workouts, attends the same meetings and has the same responsibilities as her male counterparts. She even kicked a game-winning extra point in Kent State's 2014 spring game.
Haynes had no plan to let Goss kick on Saturday, but he knew that he would let her at some point this season. Her teammates carried her off the field after her successful attempt.
“This wasn't [done so I could] get all the phone calls," Haynes says. “It was [done] because she deserved it."
Goss's range as a kicker is consistently good up to the 10-yard line according to Haynes. He's not ruling out letting Goss kick again this season, or opposed to letting her attempt a field goal.
“Saturday wasn't the end," Haynes says. “If we get another opportunity and it's the right time, right place, then [she'll kick again] for sure."
Haynes laughs when talking about the 5' 6", 134-pound Goss. “She's not what some people might have a picture of a girl playing football," Haynes says. “If she walked into this room, you'd say, That's not her."
Goss was a kicker and played soccer at Hopewell High in Aliquippa, Pa., but always dreamed of playing college football. She walked on at Kent State in the spring of 2012 and redshirted that season. Haynes inherited Goss from his predecessor and current Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. The two men previously coached together at Ohio State and discussed Goss when Haynes was hired in December 2012.
Haynes welcomed Goss to remain on the team and immediately impressed by her work ethic, which includes kicking on off-days. "It's like that commercial about being comfortable in your skin," Haynes said of Goss. "She's a female playing football. It's not like she's trying to be anything else."
And while Goss hadn't seen action on the field until Saturday, she's been invaluable off it. When Haynes and his coaching staff address important topics with their players like how to treat women, sex, and sexual assault, she's chimed in with prudent insight.
Goss has also made suggestions for those discussions that Haynes has incorporated and alerted him in advance of potential issues within the team. "She gives us her perspective from a woman's point of view," Haynes said. "It's pretty cool."
Recently though, Haynes had a conversation with Goss in which she wondered if her male teammates were truly listening to her.
"I explained to her that it's like having children, you don't think they're listening to you until a situation comes up and they tell you how they handled it," Haynes said. "Then you realize, wow, they really were listening to me. That's kind of how they approach her. They are listening to her."
Haynes says Goss is happy about her kick, but less so about the attention it's garnered. She more interested in team goals like a bowl win, which the Golden Flashes have never achieved in their 95-year history.
"Our guys always say they've got brothers and a sister," Haynes said. "They really feel that way about her."
That's why Goss' teammates are so fiercely protective of her. "I would hate for her to get in a situation on campus because you'd have guys driving in from all over the place," Haynes said. "It would be a mess. She's got 100 brothers."
And they all want Goss on their team.
Jerrod Heard infuses life into stagnant Texas offense
With new Texas starting quarterback Jerrod Heard revitalizing the Longhorns offense Saturday night in a much-needed 42-28 victory over Rice, many wondered why he wasn't handed the reins sooner. The dual-threat Heard only played one series in Texas' embarrassing 38-3 loss at Notre Dame in the opener.
"Jerrod's skills don't show up in practice the same way they do in a game," new Texas offensive coordinator Jay Norvell told The Inside Read. "They show up when the bullets are live."
The 6' 2", 199-pound Heard showcased that in Saturday night's victory as he completed 4 of 7 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns along with rushing for 96 yards on 10 carries in his first career start. "He's just a super explosive, dynamic athlete," Norvell said. "He's got the ability to improvise and to take things that happen in the game and turn something bad into something good. It gave us a spark. It gave us life. That's the biggest thing this team needed. This team just needed confidence. He gives us that."
Heard also provides hope for second-year Texas coach Charlie Strong, whose offense had sputtered dating back to the end of last season's 6-7 campaign. Besides making Heard his starter last week, Strong promoted Norvell from wide receivers coach to play-caller, demoting co-offensive coordinators Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline.
The result was a Texas offense Saturday night that at least for a game looked energized and dangerous, a vast improvement from the blowout loss at Notre Dame under quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. On the Longhorns' first possession against Rice, Heard scrambled for 35 yards and later capped the 80-yard-drive with a 32-yard touchdown pass.
Heard's run on third-and-11 highlighted the difference between him and Swoopes. Instead of being sacked, Heard improvised and made a big play, turning a potential drive-stopper into a major momentum swing.
"If you get sacked there, now your kids get deflated and they feel like, oh here we go again, but by turning it into something positive, everybody rallies and feels good about it," Norvell said.
Plays like that were also why the Texas coaching staff couldn't see his full potential at times in preseason camp. Like nearly all teams, the Longhorns don't allow their quarterbacks to be hit in practice. It's a precaution that limited Heard's athleticism, according to Norvell. Because of Swoopes' experience as Texas' starter last season, he also knew the intricacies of Watson and Wickline's offense better than Heard and was more comfortable in it.
"Jarrod's skills really didn't get an opportunity to shine," Norvell said.
Norvell points out that Heard won two state championships at Texas' highest classification level before enrolling early last year and redshirting. "He's a winner and he's got a lot of confidence," Norvell said of Heard.
So is Norvell, who is back calling plays for the first since he was offensive coordinator at UCLA in 2007. He's still familiarizing himself with his players after spending the last seven seasons as co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at rival Oklahoma. He's trying to keep the offense simple for Heard and was pleased with how Heard threw the ball against Rice. Norvell said he only used half of his offense Saturday night because his players are still learning it.
"It's not about how much you have, it's about your ability to adjust to what the defense does and get in the right plays," Norvell said. "That's all it is. Less is more a lot of times. We'll learn these plays, we'll understand these schemes a lot better and we'll build on it. Then the kids will take ownership and that's when you start really getting good."
Norvell's excited about the possibilities for his offense with Heard at the trigger. "We would really love to run the ball physically and be able to throw the football down the field and make people defend sideline-to-sideline," Norvell said. "We have vertical threats and they need opportunities. People will have to defend and they're going to have to defend Heard on the perimeter. We're going to use tempo as a tool. Those are the things we're going to build on."
Norvell believes a key to his reorganization of the Texas offense was also improving communication on game day between the coaches in the press box and those on the field. It helped coaches communicate with players better and allowed the Longhorns to make the correct adjustments against Rice. Norvell credits that for Heard throwing a 69-yard touchdown pass on the first play coming out of halftime Saturday night.
"We took a step, but we've still got a long ways to go," Norvell said of his offense.
After all, Norvell knows Texas will need to score plenty in the Big 12 and even on Saturday with high-powered California visiting. He likes that Heard's fun-loving nature has helped keep him oblivious of the pressure facing Strong and Co.
That's why on Sunday Norvell razzed Heard about some of the chances he missed Saturday night to have more touchdowns.
"I love that kid," Norvell said. "He's young, he's exciting. We're going to have a lot of fun."
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