STARKVILLE, Miss. — When taking questions after a 38-14 victory over Mississippi State, Auburn senior left guard Alex Kozan perked up when he heard Kamryn Pettway’s name.
Kozan’s demeanor quickly changed when he heard the number — 39. It quickly went from one of veteran pride for his young teammate to one of pure astonishment.
“Pssh, 39 carries?” Kozan said. “Good Lord. He’s a beast.”
The Auburn sophomore running back’s performance against Mississippi State was indeed something of a godsend for Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee’s offense.
With starting running back Kerryon Johnson going down in the first quarter with an ankle injury, Pettway got his number called early and often.
“When I saw Kerryon go down, I knew it would be a long day for me,” Pettway said.
Pettway’s 39 carries against Mississippi State went for 169 yards and 3 touchdowns, smashing all three of his career-highs. Three of his four games this season have featured 100-yard performances.
“KJ went down really early, and Pettway had to carry the load,” Malzahn said. “He carried it 39 times against a good run defense. They were one of the best in our conference and one of the best in the country. We’re real happy with the way that he carried the load at running back.”
It was the biggest load an Auburn running back has carried since the 2013 SEC Championship Game, when Tre Mason recorded 46 carries for 304 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The majority of Pettway’s work — and all 3 of his touchdowns — came in the first half, when he had 27 touches. According to ESPN, that was the second-most first-half carries a running back has had in college football during the last 10 years.
Kamryn Pettway, Have a Day!
27 Carries. 125 Yards. 3 TDs.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 8, 2016
The 240-pound Pettway showed the toughness that Auburn needed from its running backs in 2016, especially in its first game away from the Plains.
“If you remember, that was a big question going into this year: Are our running backs durable?” Malzahn said. “(Johnson), up to this point, has carried it about as many times as anyone in our league. Kamryn Pettway is a workhorse. … We feel very good about our running back position.”
Pettway also was a major key for Auburn in improving what had been a dreadful red-zone offense against Power 5 opponents in 2016. Auburn had 4 touchdowns and 1 field goal on 5 trips inside the Mississippi State 20-yard line Saturday. Pettway was responsible for 3 of those short-range scores.
As those carries started to climb for Pettway, he said there wasn’t any danger of wearing him down. That heavy workload made Pettway stronger throughout the afternoon.
“I just go with the flow,” Pettway said. “I think I get stronger as a back, as I carry the ball and get a feel of the game.”
Pettway’s feel became a dominant grip as the first half wore on and Auburn raced to a 35-0 lead before the break. Even when the yardage was harder to come by in the second half, Pettway continued to grind away for his impressed teammates.
Auburn's Kamryn Pettway and his 39 carries? 'He's a beast of a running back,' said QB Sean White, who adds, yes, the offense is progressing pic.twitter.com/AMKBbbGi7j
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) October 8, 2016
“He’s a beast, that’s all there is to it,” Auburn center Austin Golson said. “He breaks tackles. He hits the right holes. He does everything he’s asked.”
But according to Kozan, even beasts need their rest. And Pettway will get it in Auburn’s upcoming off week before the second half of the 2016 season — one that might require some more big games from the hard-running sophomore, depending on Johnson’s health.
“He runs people over, and he’s ready to go the next play,” Kozan said. “But Pettway, he should get a long break after this game.”