No. 9 Auburn's SEC-leading rushing attack wasn't quite as consistent or explosive as it has become accustomed to in the Tigers' 23-16 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. The gaping holes usually weren't there, or at least weren't as big as they had been in prior weeks. The Commodores' disciplined defense was up to the challenge for much of the afternoon.
The Tigers rolled up 271 yards on the ground as a team, but they weren't consistent enough to put the game away in the fourth quarter.
What has been consistent for Auburn, however, has been its productive ball-carriers, both this season and in seasons past. With his 25-carry, 175-yard performance, sophomore Kamryn Pettway brought his rushing total to 1,108 yards — extending Auburn's streak of having at least one 1,000-yard rusher to an SEC-record eight consecutive seasons.
For context, the previous SEC record was held by Arkansas, who had a 1,000-yard back in four straight seasons from 2002-2005.
Ben Tate was the first 1,000-yard rusher for Gus Malzahn at Auburn, as he ran for 1,362 yards his senior season under first-year head coach Gene Chizik.
In 2010, Heisman winner Cam Newton's 1,473 yards, along with freshman Michael Dyer's 1,093 yards, helped the Tigers clinch their first national championship since 1957. Dyer would gain 1,242 yards the next season before leaving the program.
The 2012 season was the closest Auburn has come to having its streak snapped. It also happened to be the one year that Auburn didn't have Malzahn on its staff. There wasn't much for Auburn to celebrate in its 3-9 campaign, nor in its 49-0 loss to Alabama, but Tre Mason's run on the final play of the season to give him 1,002 yards on the season sent the Tigers into the offseason with at least something to show for their efforts.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
Malzahn took over the program after that disastrous season, and since, Auburn's runners have become even more productive.
In 2013, Mason earned a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist after having the most productive season for an Auburn running back under Malzahn. He gained 1,816 yards on the season, while junior college transfer quarterback Nick Marshall added 1,068 yards of his own. It was Auburn's record fifth consecutive season with a 1,000-yard rusher, and the program hasn't looked back since.
In the past two years, Cameron Artis-Payne — 1,608 yards in 2014 — and Peyton Barber — 1,017 yards in 2015 — brought the record streak to new heights before leaving to join NFC South franchises — Carolina and Tampa Bay, respectively.
Now, Pettway can be added to the prestigious list.
“He’s a big-time player and I had faith in him from day one he stepped on campus," said offensive lineman Austin Golson. "I knew he was going to be a big-time player no matter what position he was put in and I believe the best is yet to come for him.”
In his last four games, Pettway has rushed for 765 yards, a crisp average of approximately 191 yards per game. The last Auburn running back to have a four-game stretch that good? Bo Jackson.
That's not to compare Pettway and Jackson in terms of skill, but rather in terms of accomplishment. Pettway, the SEC's leading rusher by some distance, has been dominant since assuming the starting role, and the running back corps know the significance of keeping Auburn's record streak alive.
“I think it was Tuesday that I told (Pettway), ‘We just don’t want to be the group that doesn’t get it done,'" said Kerryon Johnson. "We got it out of the way with three games left. Obviously, you don’t want to play for that, but when you get a stat like that out of the way, you can really just focus in on making yourself better and doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Pettway's emergence, as well as Johnson's injury, has led to the rushing numbers becoming more lopsided in nature. However, Johnson has been nothing short of thrilled for his teammate and friend's success.
“You go from playing fullback last year to a guy nobody knew would play running back this year to being a thousand-yard rusher for this team?" Johnson said. "He comes to work every day, he goes to class every day and he comes to meetings every day. He never changes up, and that’s why he was able to continue the success.”
While Pettway's athleticism is impossible to miss, it's Malzahn's offensive system that has led to the streak's ever-increasing staying power. Year in and year out, the hurry-up-no-huddle has churned out productive runners.
That's why Johnson, despite the lack of carries compared to the number of touches Pettway receives, is keeping his head up and waiting to make the most of his opportunities, especially when fully healthy. He loves playing in a system that perfectly utilizes his position.
“There’s no telling how many times you’re going to get the ball as a running back in this system," Johnson said. "You might get it 30 times, you might get it 10, you might get it 20. That’s the fun. You never know how many times you’re going to get it, but you do know you’ve got to make the most of it when you get it.”
Making the most of their carries has been a staple of Auburn running backs since 2009. It's why the Tigers' SEC record exists.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman