South Carolina came ready to make Auburn quarterback Cam Newton pass this time, and he passed for a season-high 335 yards as well as four touchdowns Saturday in the Georgia Dome.
Auburn came ready to pound South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery out of the picture this time and held him to four catches for 36 yards.
The result of the seventh in-season rematch in SEC Championship history was the most lopsided SEC Championship ever, a 56-17 rout that sent Auburn on to a showdown with Oregon in the BCS title game and Newton on his way to a Heisman acceptance speech.
Saturday’s game also goes down as the most complete four-quarter game undefeated Auburn has played this season, especially on defense. It was a performance Coach Gene Chizik forecast in his pregame speech to his team.
“I told them before the game, I felt like this was going to be our finest hour tonight,” Chizik shared with media.
It was, and it all started with Auburn’s 35-27 victory over South Carolina on Sept. 25 in Auburn.
South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said this past week that the Gamecocks came into that first game prepared to play Newton like former LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell and wound up playing former Texas great Vince Young.
Translated, Johnson had Carolina prepared to play a passer who could run. What they got in that first game was a dynamic runner who rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns.
That performance shocked Johnson and shaped how Auburn’s coaches used Newton from that point on.
Johnson clearly had a different idea about how to attack Newton on Saturday, and it gave Newton the chance to attack the nation‘s 99th-ranked pass defense.
“They rolled their safeties down, an extra guy or two, and dared us to throw it,” Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “We had to, and he (Newton) did a solid job.”
To say the least.
Newton hit Darvin Adams for a 62-yard bomb on Auburn’s second play from scrimmage, setting up Newton’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Onterio McCalebb.
Newton later scrambled and found Adams who improvised and broke down field for a 54-yard touchdown bomb.
Adams also caught a 51-yard, tipped Hail Mary pass on the first half’s final play. He finished with an SEC Championship-record 217 yards on seven catches, besting Reidel Anthony’s mark of 171 yards.
Newton, meanwhile, beat his previous season-high of 317 passing yards set against Chattanooga.
He was the SEC title game most valuable player with 408 yards in total offense. He tied Danny Wuerffel‘s SEC final record for touchdown responsibility (six) and broke the record for average yards per play (9.7).
Auburn’s 56 points and eight touchdowns also set SEC title game records.
But just as key was Auburn’s ability to keep South Carolina from making Saturday’s game a shootout, and that’s another area where this season’s first meeting between the two teams played a role.
Jeffery, the SEC’s leading receiver in yards per game, burned Auburn for eight catches, 192 yards and a touchdown in September. The Tigers remembered and came in with a plan to double cover and pound him.
“Of course our attention was on him,” safety Zac Etheridge said. “We were going to hit him every time he got the ball in his hands and just let him know that we were going to be there all night.”
As for the coverage plan, “It was pretty much a double-team,” Etheridge said. “We made sure we didn’t get him in no one-on-one situations.”
On the front end, Auburn once again pressured South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia, sacking him three times after knocking him out of the September game.
One third-quarter blitz Saturday saw linebacker Craig Stevens come unblocked up the middle along with cornerback T’Sharvan Bell on the right. Garcia attempted a screen pass blindly, and hitting Bell in the chest.
Bell returned it 10 yards for a touchdown.
“We made some plays, and we got good heat on the passer at times,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “It all goes together, though. We were more disciplined in coverage, and as a result of that we didn’t give up many big plays.”
The Tigers also checked South Carolina freshman running back Marcus Lattimore for the second time this season, holding the SEC’s second-leading rusher to 84 yards on 16 carries. He had 33 yards in September.
Auburn’s victory made it five in six games for the regular-season winner in an SEC Championship rematch.
It also showed that regular-season meetings do have bearing on conference-title rematches as teams learn from playing each other — some for better and some for worse.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.