The first time around, Ellis Johnson was more concerned with Cam Newton’s throwing arm than his legs.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
As South Carolina prepared for its Sept. 25 game at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Newton had started just three games as the Auburn quarterback. In two of them, against the quality defenses of Mississippi State and Clemson, he hadn’t come close to rushing for 100 yards.
“We didn’t have the respect for him as a runner,” said Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant coach in charge of defense. “I was more concerned about him throwing the ball deep.”
And then Newton carried the ball 25 times for 176 yards. It was the first sign that he would become the SEC’s leading rusher.
“We thought we were preparing for JaMarcus Russell,” Johnson said. “We should’ve been preparing for Vince Young.”
South Carolina will have to be prepared for anything and everything in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game rematch with Auburn in the Georgia Dome.
Newton is the first player in SEC history to run for more than 1,000 yards and throw for more than 2,000. He first flashed that balance against the Gamecocks, too, throwing for 158 yards and two touchdowns to add to his 176 rushing yards and three scores on the ground.
“Basically,” Johnson said, “he took the game over.”
Newton had his way that night with an otherwise impressive South Carolina defense.
The Gamecocks lead the SEC and rank fifth in the nation in rushing defense. They’re third in the SEC in scoring defense.
They lead the conference and rank third in the country with a school-record 39 sacks. They’ve also scored six defensive touchdowns this season, The school says its records in that category are spotty before 1992, but believes that total is another school record.
There’s a reason that, in the year of the offense in college football, South Carolina has given up 14 points or less in five of its 12 games. As head coach Steve Spurrier has said, “We are in good hands with Ellis Johnson running the defense.”
Johnson is an experienced hand. The 58-year-old has been the defensive coordinator at four different SEC schools: South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Alabama.
With the Crimson Tide in 1999, Johnson faced a similar situation to the one staring him in the face this week.
Alabama had beaten Florida, then coached by Spurrier, 40-39 during the regular season and faced a rematch with the explosive Gators in the SEC Championship Game.
The second time around, Johnson’s defense shut down Spurrier’s offense in a 34-7 Alabama romp.
Johnson said the difference in his defense’s performance in the rematch wasn’t a case of cooking up a brand-new scheme but of correcting mistakes.
“We looked at the things we had done wrong%2