- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 4, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - LSU fullback Connor Neighbors figures there may be no greater challenge for the Tigers’ power running game than the big, fast defensive front fielded by fourth-ranked Alabama.

Neighbors also confidently predicts that LSU’s bludgeoning offensive line and fearsome foursome of running backs can handle it.

“When you’re playing Alabama, they’re one of the top defenses in the nation, year after year, so they’re going to hit hard, but you’ve just got to hit harder,” said Neighbors, an Alabama native whose father, grandfather and brother played for the Crimson Tide.

“It’s going to be hard, but it’s not something we haven’t seen before. They’re a great team. They’ve got big guys. We have big guys,” Neighbors continued. “We can talk about big-on-big all day. It just comes down to heart and determination.”

When one of the oldest Southeastern Conference rivalries renews in LSU’s Death Valley on Saturday night, it’ll feature a clash of team strengths whenever LSU has the ball.

The Tigers prefer to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible - rushing 50 or more times in six games this season - and their effectiveness doing so has been building steadily throughout the season. LSU is averaging about 226 yards rushing this season, but has been at its best in recently, rushing for 567 yards in its past two games, including 264 yards against Mississippi’s highly regarded run-stoppers.

Alabama’s ability to stop the run is arguably second to none, considering the exceptional running backs playing in the SEC. Alabama is giving up only 78 yards per game on the ground and has not allowed a running back to gain 100 yards in a game this season.

Something will have to give, and players on each side sound rather eager to see how this clash of muscle and grit pans out.

“They’re definitely a physical group,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “We’re really going to have to go out there and try to dominate up front, get knock back on the line of scrimmage, and really just clear things up for the linebackers.”

After a slow start to his freshman season, 6-foot-1, 230-pound running back Leonard Fournette has emerged as the Tigers’ leading rusher, with 657 yards and seven touchdowns on 131 carries, including 293 yards and three TDs during LSU’s current three-game winning streak.

“He’s got great size. He’s a very instinctive runner. He’s got really good speed, and he can run with power,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He’s difficult to tackle. A very physical player.

“They have a very physical team, and they’re playing physical football right now,” Saban added. “There’s not a lot of trick ‘em to it. You’ve just got to match and be the same kind of physical team to be able to have a chance.”

In addition to Fournette, LSU routinely hands off to Kenny Hilliard (6-0, 232), Darrell Williams (6-0, 230) and Terrence Magee (5-9, 217).

“We have the same identity as an offense no matter which back is in the game,” Magee said. “The ability of a fresh running back to wear a defense out at the end helps out a lot.”

Indeed, on its 13-play, 95-yard, game-winning touchdown drive against then-No. 3 Ole Miss in the fourth quarter, LSU ran the ball 12 times for 93 yards.

LSU’s starting offensive linemen range in height from 6-4 to 6-7 and in weight from 295 to 321.

Center Elliott Porter said the Tigers take pride in “the old-school, LSU, ground-and-pound offense.”

“If we aren’t running the ball, that’s not us,” he added.

Alabama’s three-man defensive line could feature three players who are 6-4 and heavier than 300 pounds, if A’Shawn Robinson, Brandon Ivory and Jarran Reed start, as they did in the Tide’s game against run-heavy Arkansas. Alabama can easily field four linebackers taller than 6 feet and heavier than 240 pounds.

They’ll likely line up to stop the run in an effort to force LSU to resort to its inconsistent passing game.

Neighbors has heard plenty of skepticism in recent days regarding the Tigers’ ability to run against the Tide, and said that serves as motivation.

“When people say we can’t do it, it’s just a challenge,” Neighbors said. “We’re going to try to do it either way. It’s LSU football. We’re not going to change anything.”


AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.

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