How LSU can shut down Auburn star running back Kerryon Johnson

BATON ROUGE, La. — It only takes one look at the stat sheet or six seconds of film review to understand what LSU has in store for itself Saturday when Auburn has the football.

Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson has been a menace to defenses in 2017. Despite missing two games in the early season, Johnson leads the nation with 12 rushing touchdowns. He hasn’t played enough snaps to qualify, but his 126 rushing yards per game would lead the SEC. He’s rushed for 11 touchdowns in three SEC games, which is more than 75 teams have rushed for this season.

All of this is to say Johnson is a hyper-competent running back capable of tearing through any defense. Corralling him will be the LSU defense’s toughest challenge. He can run you over, he can juke around you, or he can blow right past you. It’s likely that LSU won’t face another running back like him this season.

But he’s not infallible. There are ways to stop him. That’s what we’ll be discussing today.

What makes him so good?

Johnson ran roughshod over Ole Miss last weekend, breaking out for 204 yards and 3 touchdowns on 28 carries. Here are three of his most impressive runs:

In the first run, Johnson broke three tackles and stiff-armed his way out of bounds, fighting through contact and arm tackles so easily that it looked effortless. In the second run, Johnson made a man miss in the open field so smoothly he looked like both the bull and the matador. Then came the third run, a 48-yard scamper untouched through the Ole Miss secondary where he shows off track-guy speed and put the War Eagle in eagle-eye vision.

It is worth noting that the Ole Miss defense is bad. The Land Sharks rank 123rd in the nation out of 130 teams in rushing defense, allowing 248.6 yards per game. Among SEC schools, only Tennessee is worse. The lack of talent and discipline on the Ole Miss defense can easily explain away Johnson’s breakaway touchdown.

But it takes a ridiculous blend of speed, power and balance to do what he did in the first two highlights. Because of his sheer ability, shutting Johnson down isn’t simple. But he does have tendencies LSU can prey on. For that, let’s take a deeper dive into the numbers.

When LSU can pounce

Johnson has rushed for 504 yards this season. A whopping 60 of those have come in the second half of games. Partially thanks to his injuries but more related to how Auburn has clobbered its recent opponents, Johnson hasn’t played deep into a game this season. He has twice as many carries (40) in the first quarter of games as he does in the third quarter (20) and he has only three fourth-quarter carries all season.

Even with his lack of second-half usage, Johnson averages 21.25 rushes per game. If he had a qualified number of carries, that’d be the 10th most in the nation. Auburn’s game plan all season has been to pound Johnson early and not have to use him late. Which has worked. But you have to wonder how that game plan will change if LSU can keep the score close.

It isn’t clear if backup running back Kamryn Pettway will be healthy enough to play Saturday. If Pettway can’t go, Johnson will be Auburn’s only running back who has more than 1 rushing touchdown this season. Sophomore Kam Martin has been electric, averaging 8.3 yards per carry, but the fact remains that he didn’t touch the ball against Clemson or Mississippi State and put up most of his numbers against lowly Georgia Southern and Missouri.

By simply keeping the game close, LSU will constrict Johnson’s touches. Auburn isn’t going to hand him the ball 40 times. His 28 carries versus Ole Miss were a career high. Forcing Johnson to play deeper into a game will test him unlike any team has this season.

Beware first downs

Here’s a breakdown of Johnson’s rushing numbers per down:

Down Attempts Yards TDs Yards Per Carry
1st Down 46 334 6 7.26
2nd Down 26 70 4 2.69
3rd Down 11 97 1 8.82
4th Down 2 3 1 1.50

Johnson has torched defenses on first down. Among backs with at least 40 first-down carries, only Stanford’s Bryce Love, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Alabama’s Damien Harris are averaging more yards per carry. No one has more first-down touchdowns than Johnson.

On seven occasions, Johnson turned a first down into another first down with a carry of 10 yards or more. Four of those seven carries went for more than 20 yards. This is just one more place where Johnson dominates. But it is interesting to see how steep the dropoff is from first down to second down.

Johnson averages 4.57 more yards per carry on first down than he does on second down. To put that in perspective, LSU running back Derrius Guice is averaging 4.44 yards per carry this season. Total.

This doesn’t mean LSU should stack 11 defenders in the box on first down and try to set up favorable second downs. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is completing 79.5 percent of his first-down passes with 5 of his 7 touchdowns. Sell out on the run too heavily and Auburn will burn you over the top.

But this further underscores the importance of playing disciplined on first down. Stidham hasn’t thrown a second-down touchdown all season. Johnson hasn’t produced long gainers on second down, either. Stopping the Orange Tigers on first down and forcing them to beat you on second down takes them out of their rhythm.

Of course, Johnson is a successful third-down runner, too. But that’s circumstantial. Of his 11 carries and 97 yards on third downs, 9 of the carries and 90 of the yards have come in third-and-3 or shorter. Forty-eight of those 90 yards came on the one breakaway carry we talked about earlier.

On plays of third-and-4 or longer? He’s carried twice for 7 yards. That’s it.

Auburn hasn’t used Johnson at all on medium or long distance third downs. Keeping Johnson and Stidham behind the sticks puts the game on Stidham’s shoulders. And as good as Stidham can be, that’s what LSU should want.

The alternative is enduring the kind of afternoon Ole Miss did a week ago. Not a good plan.

The post How LSU can shut down Auburn star running back Kerryon Johnson appeared first on SEC Country.

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