- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles said he had never seen a face mask pop off like Leonard Fournette's did last Saturday against Ole Miss, but equipment managers around the SEC have.
LSU director of athletic equipment Greg Stringfellow said his counterparts at Mississippi State and Ole Miss informed him that Fournette was at least the fourth SEC player to have that happen in a game this season.
"I know Ole Miss said it happened one time and Mississippi State said twice," Stringfellow said.
But that doesn't make it any less of a shock in the moment -- particularly when the key participants had never seen it happen before. To his credit, Fournette tried to keep running on the play, even after Ole Miss linebacker Serderius Bryant grabbed his facemask while falling to the ground and came close to ripping it completely off Fournette's helmet.
"I was just trying to break the tackle," Fournette said. "Next thing I noticed, my facemask was gone. I was looking on the ground for it. I thought it was on the ground, but it actually stuck [to the top of my helmet]."
It was such an egregious personal foul that ESPN color analyst Kirk Herbstreit remarked, "Wow, that may be an NCAA record for a facemask" upon seeing it on instant replay.
Ole Miss' Carlos Thompson tackled the LSU running back shortly after Bryant grabbed the facemask, stopping Fournette for a 6-yard gain. However, the penalty gave LSU a first down at Ole Miss' 3-yard line.
Fournette, who had carried the ball on four of the previous six plays, was unable to continue on the drive, however. Stringfellow and his staff were busy on the Tigers' sideline trying to either fix the original helmet or fit Fournette with a new one as quickly as possible, but quarterback Anthony Jennings hit tight end Logan Stokes with the game-winning touchdown pass two plays later.
"All my guys saw it, so we all kind of ran together at one time," Stringfellow said. "I was the first one there and I just grabbed it and looked at it to see what was broken on it to see if it could be reattached real quickly. We were all kind of like, ‘Holy crap,' but the game was still going on and it was kind of a key part of the game, obviously. We were trying to figure out exactly what was going on, trying to get him back on the field."
What was going on was that a freight train wearing a No. 7 LSU jersey broke away from Bryant, whose right hand held his facemask in a death grip as he fell. Stringfellow said the two forces moving in opposite directions pulled apart three of the four rubberized fixings that held the facemask and helmet together. The fourth was "hanging on by a thread," he said.
Stringfellow didn't think it was a defect with the Riddell helmet that Fournette was wearing, however.
"It looked like it had just had a catastrophic failure because of the amount of force," Stringfellow said. "And facemasks are made, really, to absorb blows that come into them. When you pull the opposite way of the way they're supposed to absorb, different things happen. They're not made to go out from force. They're made to go in with force."
The play has become an amusing sidenote to Saturday's game because LSU still went on to score the go-ahead points on the drive. LSU coach Miles even made light of the situation at his post-practice interview session on Monday.
"I told him today in practice, I said I would've ripped it off much quicker and it would not have slowed him down at all, and then I just told him he needed to be careful where he put his head after he lost his facemask," Miles said. "I never saw anything like it. I never saw a guy handle it like he handled it, either. Just rolled on through it."
Miles would not have found the situation so funny had LSU failed to score on the drive while one of its leading offensive players -- Fournette ran 23 times for 113 yards against the Rebels -- was on the sideline.
That was Stringfellow's beef about the situation afterward. He went so far as to suggest that the SEC establish a rule where a team's equipment staff would receive extra time to fit a player with a new helmet in such a situation, so that the opponent who commits the penalty doesn't gain an advantage through the infraction.
"We probably could have gotten him back in there if we got another first down, but we were so close it didn't happen," Stringfellow said. "But still, missing him that close to the end zone, in that game, we're very fortunate to have a good group of running backs that you could sub somebody in and get the job done.
"But in the same sense, the guy was playing pretty good right then and you don't want to lose him at that point in time. So we did everything that we could to get him back on the field as quick as possible. For the next time that he had to go on the field, he had a brand-new facemask."
Luckily for LSU, the Tigers didn't require Fournette's services any further in the 10-7 win.
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