by Matt Hinton
One of the hallmarks of Les Miles' tenure at LSU is his insistence on running back-by-committee. If you have the luxury, why not? In eight years under Miles, six different players have led the Tigers in rushing, none of whom has averaged 100 yards per game, and only one of whom (Stevan Ridley in 2010) has averaged more than 16 carries. Only Charles Scott in 2008 has accounted for more than 50 percent of the team's total output on the ground, and only if you subtract for sacks. Six LSU backs have been drafted in that span, but none had enough opportunities to finish among the top 35 rushers nationally.
Over the last two years it's been even more fragmented, with the top four rushers in 2011 all accounting for somewhere between 25 and 54 yards per game, and the top four in 2012 averaging between 30 and 70 yards. Four different backs on the current roster have not only led the team in rushing at some point in their careers, but have put up multiple 100-yard games. All four have NFL size, coming in (officially) at somewhere between 210 and 235 pounds. Which only makes sophomore Jeremy Hill's emergence from the pack that much more illuminating: In this crowd, just how good do you have to be to truly stand out?
Saturday night gave us a compelling answer. On his first carry against Auburn, Hill glided through two tackles in the secondary, eluded a third and cruised into the end zone from 49 yards out. On his second carry, he went straight up the middle and through another tackle for another score, this one covering ten yards. For the game, Hill carried 25 times for 183 yards -- a new high for an individual back in the Miles era -- and three touchdowns. Without even glancing at the stat sheet, though, just a few glimpses of his imposing size (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) and raw power en route to open grass left no doubt where LSU's bread will be buttered for the rest of the season. Even against a blue-chip, SEC West peer in the conference opener, giving the ball to anyone else almost seemed quaint. (LSU's other backs, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee, carried eleven times for 45 yards.) With a double-digit lead socked away virtually from start to finish, at least the defense deserves a sporting chance.
For anyone whose memory goes back this far, it was impossible watching Hill without being reminded of Cecil Collins, whose brief, spectacular career at LSU was highlighted by a 232-yard effort against Auburn in 1997, and soon thereafter dissolved into legend by the injury and legal troubles that kept "The Diesel" from fulfilling his massive potential. Hill has had his share of problems, too: After signing with LSU in 2011, his enrollment was delayed a year by a sexual battery charge, and he pled guilty in July to a misdemeanor battery charge in a bar fight. In response, Miles left Hill's fate up to his teammates, and held him out of the opening-night win over TCU after they voted him back on the team. Whether he would have felt so democratic about a player who hadn't just led the team in rushing in essentially a half-season's worth of work, we'll never know.
Now that he's back on the field, though, it's obvious enough that past indiscretions aren't going to stop Hill from becoming the centerpiece of an attack with more weapons than LSU has had at its disposal in a long time. The quarterback, senior Zach Mettenberger, currently ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency, just ahead of Johnny Manziel. His top receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., continues to lead the SEC in all-purpose yards by a wide margin; he and Jarvis Landry, a former five-star recruit, are averaging a little over 17 yards per catch with ten touchdowns. (Both are on pace to exceed 1,200 yards for the season, which would make them the first and second 1,000-yard receivers in Miles' tenure if they do.) If he can stay on the field, Hill is the platonic ideal of a workhorse LSU tailback. If he can't, the really frightening part for the rest of the conference is that LSU doesn't necessarily need him to win it.
- It wasn't the worst call of the week, necessarily –- N.C. State fans can fill you in on that one -– but without a doubt the most consequential call was a bogus pass interference flag against Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, which wiped out an apparent interception at the start of the fourth quarter at Notre Dame. At that point, the score was tied at ten, and the Spartans had already been whistled for pass interference on three separate occasions in the second and third quarters. One of those, a third-down call in the second quarter, had extended the Irish's first touchdown drive; another had (justifiably) nullified an interception just a few plays before Waynes' redacted pick in the end zone. Instead of a turnover, Notre Dame was given a first-and-goal from the MSU 7-yard line, and proceeded to punch it in for what turned out to be the winning touchdown in a 17–13 slugfest. The PI flags, marked off at 15 yards apiece, represented four of the Irish's six longest plays of the day.
- The surprise team of September is Maryland, which capped a 4–0 run through the non-conference schedule by shutting out West Virginia, 37–0, the first time the Mountaineers have failed to score a point since 2001. There's nothing misleading about that goose egg, either: The Terrapins held WVU to 175 yards of total offense –- its worst day under coach Dana Holgorsen, by far –- and forced as many turnovers (six) as the Mountaineers had first downs. Meanwhile, Maryland's first three touchdowns were all the direct result of takeaways by the defense, which returned an interception for a score in the first quarter and set up two others for the offense inside the WVU 25-yard line. Not a bad way to snap a seven-game losing streak against a next-door rival.
- Tennessee coaches decided to go with a new quarterback in Saturday's SEC opener at Florida, and who could blame them? After enduring one of the most lopsided losses in school history at Oregon, junior Justin Worley was demoted for the trip to Gainesville in favor of redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, who would be seeing his first significant action. As it turns out, it may turn out to be his last. In just two quarters, Worley was picked off twice, fumbled twice and completed just four of eleven passes for five yards –- good for a truly astonishing pass efficiency rating of 3.8, the lowest for a starting quarterback in an SEC game in at least a decade. Worley returned in the second half to lead a pair of scoring drives, but the damage was done in a 31–17 loss. And with Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama coming up on the October schedule, any hope the Vols had for significant improvement under first-year coach Butch Jones is, too.
- On the other side, Florida fans have plenty of reasons for optimism over their new starter, Tyler Murphy, beginning with the fact that he's not the old starter. Jeff Driskel was knocked out for the season in the process of throwing a pick-six for Tennessee's first touchdown, less than one quarter removed from his deflating four-interception afternoon at Miami two weeks ago. After a rough start, Murphy settled down to lead three consecutive, extended touchdown drives in the second and third quarters, accounting for 131 yards and five third-down conversions on those drives as a rusher and passer. Even if Driskel could return this season, there would be no rush. Then again, we might feel differently after seeing Murphy against LSU, South Carolina and Georgia instead of Tennessee.
- Texas pulled out of a two-game tailspin in time to take its Big 12 opener over Kansas State, 31–21, which is all Longhorn fans wanted to hear. Regardless of the details, UT is 1–0 in the conference, still has plausible BCS ambitions and will not have to spend the next week hearing about the factions of the fan base anxious to replace Mack Brown with Nick Saban or Art Briles or anyone else. The good news moving forward is that sophomore tailback Johnathan Gray (28 carries for 141 yards, two touchdowns) looked for the first time like the five-star bellwether he was projected to be, and the defense took a major step forward against the run. The bad news is that starting quarterback David Ash left the game at the half to be evaluated for a concussion -– a serious development given that he's already missed a game this season with a concussion –- and starting linebacker Jordan Hicks will undergo season-ending surgery for the second year in a row.
OFI TOP 25
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1. ALABAMA (3–0).
2. OREGON (3–0).
3. CLEMSON (3–0).
4. LSU (4–0).
5. FLORIDA STATE (3–0).
6. STANFORD (3–0).
7. OHIO STATE (4–0).
8. GEORGIA (2–1).
9. SOUTH CAROLINA (2–1).
10. TEXAS A&M (3–1).
11. WASHINGTON (3–0).
12. UCLA (3–0).
13. OKLAHOMA STATE (3–0).
14. LOUISVILLE (4–0).
15. OKLAHOMA (3–0).
16. OLE MISS (3–0).
17. NORTHWESTERN (4–0).
18. MIAMI (3–0).
19. BAYLOR (3–0).
20. MICHIGAN (4–0).
21. NOTRE DAME (3–1).
22. FLORIDA (2–1).
23. FRESNO STATE (3–0).
24. GEORGIA TECH (4–0).
25. MARYLAND (4–0).
– – –
In: Fresno State, Georgia Tech, Maryland.
Out: Arizona State, Virginia Tech, Auburn.
Waiting: Texas Tech, Central Florida, Virginia Tech, Arizona, Missouri.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
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1. J.R. COLLINS • DE, Virginia Tech.
Collins serves as the representative of the Hokies' entire defensive line, which turned in a characteristically solid effort in a 29–21, triple-overtime win over Marshall. Along with linemates James Gayle, Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins, Collins hounded Thundering Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato into a miserable afternoon (19-for-41 passing, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions), earning individual credit for nine tackles, two tackles for loss, seven hurries and a forced fumble in double overtime that should have effectively ended the game –- if only Tech had a kicker on hand who could hold up his end of the deal.
2. YAWIN SMALLWOOD • LB, Connecticut.
UConn put the fear of Bo Schembechler into Michigan, thanks in very large part to Smallwood, an All-Big East pick in 2012 who made good on the national stage with 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, a pass broken up and a blindside sack that jarred the ball loose from Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner. (This was the only one of three Michigan fumbles the Wolverines recovered.) Altogether, the same offense that put up 41 points against Notre Dame managed just 24 against the Huskies -– 17 coming in a fourth-quarter rally –- on a season-low 289 yards.
3. J.C. COPELAND • FB, LSU.
Copeland came to LSU as a defensive lineman, and currently serves as a de facto offensive lineman in the backfield. Most of Jeremy Hill's yards against Auburn came directly behind Copeland -– for the spread kids, this is called "lead blocking" -– who demolished linebackers at the point of attack on all three of his tailback's touchdown runs. Copeland got a touchdown himself on Saturday, on a one-yard plunge in the second quarter, which he richly deserved after springing Hill on the long run that got the ball there in the first place.
4. DANTE FOWLER • DE, Florida.
Like his line mate, Dominique Easley, Fowler's presence in the pass rush is usually far more apparent on film than on paper, but when he does show up in the box score he makes it count: All three of Fowler's tackles against Tennessee were for loss, and two of them resulted in fumbles that were recovered by the Gators. The second of those led to a short field that produced Florida's first points of the game, on a field goal. (Sorry, the defensive line can't do everything.)
5. LEONARD WILLIAMS • DT, USC.
A 17–14 win over Utah State in which neither side cracks 300 yards of total offense is nothing to write home about, but at this point the Trojans aren't quibbling over style points. The victory was another effective showcase for the defense, which ranks fourth nationally in yards allowed and is going to have to stay there if SC has any chance of remaining relevant in the Pac-12 South. Williams, a Freshman All-American in 2012, led the push against the Aggies with a team-high eight tackles and three tackles for loss.