By Greg Ostendorf
COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Kerryon Johnson still has a sour taste in his mouth from the LSU game last month. He and his teammates were told to put that game behind them and move on, but it serves as a constant reminder to play four quarters.
Consequently, the Auburn offense has scored 56 second-half points in the two games since LSU.
“When we go in for halftime, we could be down by 40 points, we’re going to preach ‘finish,’” Johnson said after Saturday’s 42-27 win at Texas A&M. “That’s what we preach all week in practice. That’s what we preach in the meetings. That’s what we preach in the walk-throughs. We’ve got to finish.
“Because we know we’re good enough to get up on anybody, but you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. We had one mistake earlier that really came back to bite us, so we won’t let that happen again.”
In that LSU game, Johnson finished with a game-high 156 yards rushing. However, only 33 yards came after halftime. The entire Auburn offense, Johnson included, stalled in the second half and allowed LSU to come back and win the game.
Johnson wasn’t about to let that happen Saturday. The junior rushed for 145 yards against Texas A&M, and 87 of those yards came in the second half. It was like he got stronger as the game went on. He was running around, over and through defenders. On multiple plays in the second half, it took more than one defender to bring him down.
“I told myself in the LSU game I didn’t make enough plays down the stretch,” Johnson said. “Great first half, but I didn’t finish the way I wanted to. So this game I really wanted to go out there and show to myself, to my teammates, to the fans that this is a four-quarter game, and you’ve got to play all four quarters. I was just trying to finish as hard I can.”
After the game, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Johnson once again showed why he’s one of the best running backs in the country, not just in the SEC.
“He just feels it,” Malzahn said. “The special players, they feel it when the game’s on the line. He protected the football. I think we had zero turnovers. But again, he just felt it. He willed his self. You all saw it. They’ve got good tacklers, good defensive guys, and he’s breaking tackles and he’s running over people. He just willed his self.”
Despite missing two games early in the season, Johnson leads the SEC and is tied for third nationally with 15 rushing touchdowns. He’s second in the conference with 868 yards rushing, though his 124 rushing yards per game is No. 1 by a wide margin. He also hauled in his first career receiving touchdown Saturday.
With fellow running back Kamryn Pettway still sidelined with an injury, Johnson will continue to be the focal point of the offense over the team’s next three games – a stretch that includes No. 1 Georgia on Saturday and No. 2 Alabama two weeks later.
It’s an opportunity for Auburn to climb back into the College Football Playoff conversation. It’s also an opportunity for Johnson to showcase his talent on a national stage. But he’s approaching this Saturday’s game like he would any other game.
“We’ve got to go in with this mindset the same way we do any other game,” Johnson said. “Obviously, it’s a big one, but you can’t overhype it in your brain. You go out there and you start playing too fast, you make mistakes. So in my mind, we’re going out and we’re playing Georgia. Who cares about the rankings? I’ve never looked at them, and I won’t in the future. I’m going to go out there and play my ball.”
Johnson probably doesn’t pay attention to awards either. But if he finishes the season strong and Auburn keeps winning, there’s a chance he might be taking some hardware. There was another Auburn running back who finished the season strong in 2013, and he was invited to New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy as a result.
That's not where Johnson's mind is, though. He's focused on finishing.
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: