Stopping Johnson Auburn's First Priority

Auburn faces a Penn State offense averaging 233.5 yards rushing per game this season.

Orlando, Fla.--Rushing for 2,000 yards in a season is something that doesn't happen very often. As a matter of fact, in all the years of football played on the collegiate level it has occurred just nine times at the Division I level.

One of those times was this season and unfortunately for the Auburn Tigers they have to face senior Larry Johnson in his final game as a Penn State Nittany Lion after he rushed for a school record 2,015 yards and 23 touchdowns this season.

Averaging an eye-popping 8.0 yards per carry this season and 167.9 rushing yards per game, the 222-pound Johnson has been a one-man wrecking crew in 2002. With four of the top 12 rushing games in the NCAA this season and a school-record 327 yards rushing against Indiana, Johnson has carried the load on offense and Auburn defensive coordinator Gene Chizik says this might be his defense's toughest test of the season.

Larry Johnson

"You can see from the time they played Central Florida (season opener) until the time they ended the season he got dramatically better as the season went along," Chizik says. "He broke a lot of games open with some big runs. You can see he progressed well as the season went. He very much deserved the 2,000 yards he got and actually got some long runs called back that didn't count in those 2,000 yards. He's the real deal.

"He's going to get his 8, 10, 12 yard gains here and there you just have to make sure you tackle him and bring the guy down," Chizik adds. "Where he makes his money is when he breaks that tackle at four or five yards and it ends up being a 40, 50 or 60 yard run. That's what you have to eliminate with a guy like that."

While Auburn will try to limit Johnson's success, the Penn State offense will strive to send Johnson out on a high note. Thriving in the spotlight the big back has received this season, the rest of the starting group says that they wouldn't be where they are without Johnson. Starting fullback Paul Jefferson (6-1, 239, Jr.) notes that pride comes in to play when Johnson racks up the yardage.

"Definitely," Jefferson answers when asked if he takes pride in Johnson's accomplishment. "He has a big part in that as well. He's learned how to read our blocks. To see your running back go on and win awards and break 2,000 yards it makes you feel good and lets you know that you're really getting your job done."

Dontarrious Thomas

Auburn is preparing for the challenge by working against a scout team offense featuring a pair of big running backs impersonating Johnson. While the bulk of the defensive work falls on the line, the linebackers will play a big part in whether or not the Tigers are able to slow down Johnson. Junior Dontarrious Thomas notes that this is something his teammates are looking forward to.

"It's a big challenge," Thomas says. "He has great vision into the hole and has great patience. He waits for the blockers to come and make the hole and then he picks them. When he picks them he explodes real good. He's a great back and tough and physical. It's going to be a great challenge, but it's a way for us to improve ourselves and make ourselves better."

Coming off a regular season in which they were just a few plays from being 11-1, the Tigers are now in a position to make some waves before next season with a win over a Big Ten school in Penn State. While the conference pride is strong and they want to win the game to make the conference look good, Thomas says this game is all about Auburn gaining momentum going into the 2003 season.

"This is important in general," Thomas says. "We want to carry our momentum over to next year. Hopefully, there will be a lot of guys back and next year we'll be looking to play real good. We should be up for SEC title contention and maybe more next year.

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