HOUSTON — The running backs are bringing the star power to Saturday’s LSU-Wisconsin game.
There’s Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, a Heisman Trophy hopeful who’s coming off a 1,600-yard season and comes into the season averaging 8.1 yards per carry, tops in the nation. LSU seniors Terrance Magee and Kenny Hilliard are a solid 1-2 punch, rushing for 936 yards and 15 touchdowns together last season backing up the now-departed Jeremy Hill.
And then there’s Leonard Fournette.
The mega-hyped LSU freshman is expected to make his debut on national TV when the 13th-ranked Tigers meet No. 14 Wisconsin at NRG Stadium in Houston.
He was widely regarded as the nation’s top recruit after running for 7,619 yards and 88 touchdowns at New Orleans’ St. Augustine High School. He wasn’t afraid to fuel the hype earlier this year, saying he wanted to rush for 1,000 yards and be considered for the Heisman in his first season with the Tigers.
Even Gordon is eager to see what Fournette can do.
“I’ve seen his high school film or whatever, he’s a great player,” Gordon said. “He’s getting high praise from his coach, all over ESPN and things like that, so you know you have to be doing something right. I’m excited to see him and see what type of running back he is.”
The quarterbacks have garnered most of the talk leading up to the game.
Tanner McEvoy, a former receiver and safety who only moved to quarterback in the spring, might start for Wisconsin ahead of last year’s starter, Joel Stave.
“The one thing I would say is he has played in big-time games,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. “He’s been a starter at free safety, which is the quarterback of our defense. He has a lot of alignment issues, it’s very technical back there. There’s a ton of communication that has to take place. So, he’s been in that moment.”
LSU is moving on from the Zach Mettenberger era with sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris. Jennings played in nine games last year, the highlight coming when he came in for an injured Mettenberger in the finale against Arkansas and threw a 49-yard TD pass to win it. Coach Les Miles has indicated he will play them both.
Some things to watch in Saturday’s matchup:
STRONG SECONDARY: LSU sophomore Tre’Davious White moved into the starting lineup last year and excelled with 55 tackles, two interceptions and two tackles for loss. The Tigers have experience across the rest of the secondary, with junior Jalen Collins manning the other cornerback spot and senior Ronald Martin and juniors Jalen Mills and Corey Thompson playing safety. Mills may be benched for part of the game as part of an undisclosed, “in-house” punishment for his offseason misdemeanor simple battery arrest.
BIG 3 UP FRONT: LSU’s running game will be a stern test for the Badgers, who lost eight defensive starters, mostly along the defensive line and in the linebacking corps. LSU’s offensive line returns four of five starters.
Nose tackle Warren Herring (35 games) has the most returning experience up front for Wisconsin. Defensive end Konrad Zagzebski (31 games) made three starts and finished with 19 tackles and sophomore Chikwe Obasih will man the other defensive end position after redshirting last season.
“We had a lot of question marks coming into fall camp with the front seven,” Zagzebski said. “So without question, I think how we handle their offensive linemen and how we come together has a front seven for our first game will really be the true test for this weekend.”
NEW PASSING ZONE: LSU’s offense not only lost Mettenberger, a 3,000-yard passer, but 1,000-yard receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, now all in the NFL. Sophomore Travin Dural caught seven passes a season ago to lead all the returnees at that position.
TRICK PLAY TALK: Andersen says he has gone back years digging into Miles’ bag of trick plays. He wants the Badgers to be ready for anything.
“Every fake that we can possibly find on YouTube, or through film study or wherever, again I go back, we’re pulling up stuff from six, seven, 10 years ago,” Andersen said. “I don’t know, maybe we’re trying to outthink ourselves. But we are on guard, definitely.”
HEAD TO HEAD: The SEC is 44-30 against the Big Ten since 1995 and 21-16 over the past 10 seasons, including bowl games.