BATON ROUGE, La. — Any doubt LSU star running back Leonard Fournette had about playing against Florida on Saturday apparently evaporated during a pregame skirmish between the Gators and some of his teammates.
Fournette's gimpy left ankle prevented him from making an impact, but his No. 16 Tigers (6-4, 4-3 SEC) appreciated the gesture by their star junior who likely made his final home appearance in the 16-10 loss to the No. 23 Gators (8-2, 6-2; No. 21 AP).
"He, I don't think, was anticipating playing so much," fullback J.D. Moore said of Fournette, who ran 12 times for 40 yards before giving way to backup Derrius Guice for much of the second half. "I think that's a testament to his character that he wanted to be out there fighting with us despite personal injury. I'm all for him being out there and was glad to see him get to play in his last time in Tiger Stadium."
Fournette was dressed in sweats and a baseball cap and was watching teammates warm up when the shoving match broke out following an argument between freshmen cornerbacks Chauncey Gardner (Florida) and Saivion Smith (LSU).
Fournette was among the participants, twice shoving Florida defensive backs coach Torrian Gray before the groups were separated.
Multiple reports had indicated that Fournette would be out vs. Florida due to soreness from a nagging left ankle injury, but LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron confirmed after the game that Fournette came to him in the locker room after the incident and asked to play.
"He didn't say [it was because of the fight] to me," Orgeron said. "He just came to me before the game in the dressing room and said, 'Coach I want to play.'"
Fournette was not made available to talk to reporters after the game.
When the Tigers returned to the field, Fournette was dressed in full pads, intent on trying to play despite the preseason ankle injury that robbed him of three games this season and limited his effectiveness in several others.
After the game, LSU receiver D.J. Chark said he never expected Fournette to play Saturday when the team arrived at Tiger Stadium.
"No, not at all," Chark said. "Leonard is a competitor and I feel like all that commotion brought out the competitive side in him and he wanted to give it all.
"Unfortunately, he's not healthy, but just to see that type of fight in a guy to know he's not healthy and come into the game saying, 'I'm not going to play' and still strap on his pads and go out there, you don't find too many guys like that."
Guice, who lost a fumble inside the Florida 10 to halt LSU's second possession, finished with 112 total yards (83 rushing, 29 receiving) and a touchdown against Florida, but LSU certainly missed a healthy Fournette at crucial points.
"I thought that was the difference in the game right there — one of the turning points in the game," Orgeron said of Guice's fumble. "Up 7-3, go up 14-3 with the great defense we have, we could do some things to move the football to take care of the clock. We just didn't get it done."
On his final carry of the game, Fournette was unable to run through Caleb Brantley's tackle attempt at the Florida 1, falling for a 1-yard loss early in the third quarter. LSU then settled for a field goal try that failed when holder Josh Growden could not handle the snap and instead floated an incomplete pass into the end zone.
Fournette's absence was most painful at the end of the game, however. Florida stuffed Moore at the 1 on the second-to-last play and then stopped a diving Guice short of the end zone to end the game as the Gators secured the SEC East title and a spot in the conference championship game against No. 1 Alabama.
Even worse, Guice ran the wrong way on the play before cutting back toward the left and attempting to dive over the pile.
"We had a little short toss called and the back went the wrong way, although he made a good effort," Orgeron said. "But it just wasn't executed right."
A healthy Fournette might have made the difference there, but that has been a persistent storyline throughout the season for the Tigers. Fournette's heart and mind were willing, but his body refused to cooperate.
As a result, a team that entered the season as a potential College Football Playoff contender just suffered its fourth loss of the season — with its star watching helplessly from the sideline as a potential game-winning drive fell just short.
Saturday's contest was a makeup from the originally scheduled Oct. 8 game in Gainesville, Florida, that was postponed because of Hurricane Matthew.
The game was moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as part of the agreement to reschedule, which was a contentious negotiation that included multiple threats to cancel the matchup.