AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s backfield seemed to be in trouble in early August.
In the offseason, three of the Tigers’ most dynamic offensive players departed from the Plains.
Yet, despite losing Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson, Kerryon Johnson remained sure Auburn could field two 1,000-yard rushers.
Now, with only the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma remaining, Johnson (862 total yards) is 138 rushing yards from being correct — and he’s still confident he’ll reach his goal.
“I mean, definitely. All I need is a big game in the bowl game, which is very possible,” Johnson said. “My main goal is winning. 1,000 yards would be nice to have two of them, but if we don’t win the game, it doesn’t mean much.”
The sophomore has surpassed the 100-yard mark three times this season. He delivered his season-high 146 yards against Louisiana-Monroe during Auburn’s homecoming game on Oct. 1.
Johnson was the starter at the beginning of the season before rotating with sophomore Kamryn Pettway for most of 2016.
Pettway, who started in place of an injured Johnson against Mississippi State, burst on to the national stage and led Auburn to a six-game win streak after converting from H-back. The 6-foot, 240-pound bruiser became Auburn’s 10th 1,000-yard rusher since 2009 in the Tigers’ win against Vanderbilt in November (after just 9 games).
1,000-yard rushers since 2009
Johnson’s goal to reach the mark in New Orleans won’t be easy. The Sooners’ stout defense has only given up 160 yards per game to opponents this season.
Oklahoma did, however, allow teams more room on the ground in its final four games. Iowa State, Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State rushed for a combined 947 yards starting in early November.
The downtime Auburn has had in recent weeks will only push Johnson close to his goal. After battling back from and through a mid-season ankle injury, Johnson finally feels like himself again.
“I’m 100 percent now,” Johnson said. “I mean, I just feel a lot better than where I was, even though I was feeling really good, you know; the last three weeks I can just feel myself being really close to normal. I’m back to 100 now.”
It will also help that Pettway, who also battled injuries throughout the season, is completely healthy, too. Few were more pleased with Pettway’s announcement to return than Johnson, who sees the benefits of a 1-2 punch.
“I think that’s what makes a team special,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “If you’ve got a chance to do something special, you need your best players. They really like each other. They complement each other. So, I think it says a lot. I know that doesn’t happen (on) every team around the country, so it’s great that it’s happening here.”