ATLANTA — Auburn coaches and teammates obviously didn’t have many positive things to say after the Tigers’ 28-7 loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. But the subject of Kerryon Johnson was an exception.
Johnson played through shoulder and rib injuries he suffered in the second half of Auburn’s Iron Bowl win over Alabama last week. While the numbers were the worst of the season for him — 13 carries, 44 yards and his first lost fumble of the year — he was widely praised afterward for his toughness.
“I can’t say enough about how tough he is and the guts he has,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He was banged up. He had some rib issues, he had a shoulder issue. We didn’t really know if he was going to play. He did a little bit of stuff in practice, but he was very, very limited.”
Johnson said he wouldn’t use the injuries as an excuse for his performance, especially the fumble, but he was clearly affected by them throughout the night.
“It was tough,” Johnson said. “It hurts. But the trainers told me, ‘If you can go, you can go. If you can’t, then you’ve got to let us know.’ I let them know when I couldn’t. I made a mistake, and that ultimately cost us the game. It’s football. You’ve got to play through some things. It just happens.”
Johnson’s teammates knew the pain he went through to get on the field Saturday in Atlanta.
“Towards the end of the game, he was toughing it out,” senior center Casey Dunn said. “The dude is tough as crap. Mad respect for that guy. That’s why we block up front as hard as we do.”
Johnson’s first two carries each went for 5-plus yards, but he didn’t have another one until the third quarter, when he ripped off a 15-yard one — his only explosive carry of the game.
His final touch of the night came on the first play in the fourth quarter, when he lost the ball near midfield with the Tigers trailing by 6 points.
“I just fumbled,” Johnson said. “Injuries are injuries, everybody plays with them. If you go out there, you better be ready. I went out there and just coughed it up.”
Even with the costly fumble, those in the Auburn locker room were glad Johnson was able to play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday.
“He’s a fighter,” junior receiver Darius Slayton said. “He went out there and gave it all he had. Whatever you saw on TV or here at the game, that’s all he had. I appreciate him coming out and just fighting for us.”
Johnson will still finish the regular season as one of the top running backs in college football. He had a shot of becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist heading into the weekend.
The junior running back said he appreciated the Heisman buzz, but he brushes that off in the face of a tough loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
“The Heisman stuff, that’s a one-man thing,” Johnson said. “It’s a great honor or whatever, but that’s a one-man thing. This here is all [players] who put in the hard work, scout team guys that gave us a look, all that. All that stuff plays into it. We’re still proud of our season, but this would’ve meant a lot to us.”
That attitude was exactly what Johnson gave Auburn all season long — the good games and the bad ones — and his head coach was thankful for that.
“He gave us all he had,” Malzahn said. “You could see it wasn’t 100 percent. But he helped get us here, and he’s a great player.”