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Auburn’s run game will make or break its Sugar Bowl hopes

Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson are both finally healthy for the first time in months and that should be beneficial for Auburn’s Sugar Bowl hopes.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

All season long, the Auburn Tigers’ offense has been pretty one dimensional.

The Tigers rank sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game and 112th in passing yards per game. The offense was, for the most part, carried by running backs Kamryn Pettway (1,123 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground) and Kerryon Johnson (862 yards and 11 scores on the ground).

Allowing these two to run wild on opposing defenses helped Auburn to obtain a 8-4 record and a trip to the Sugar Bowl against the No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners, who finished the year 10-2. At first glance, it seems like Auburn’s one-dimensional offense might have some troubles with Oklahoma’s defense. On the year, the Sooners rush defense is ranked 55th in the country, allowing only 160.8 yards per game during the regular season. But digging deeper into the statistics, it shows a different tale.

Yes, Oklahoma’s rush defense holds opponents to under 200 yards on the ground. However, during the back third of their schedule, the Sooners allowed opponents to run wild on them.

During the last four games, Oklahoma allowed nearly 1,000 yards (947 to be exact) on the ground to Iowa State, Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State. Plus, West Virginia running back Justin Crawford gashed the Sooner defense for 331 yards on 24 carries.

Auburn faced five top-50 rush defenses this season: Alabama, LSU, Clemson, Georgia and Arkansas State, who ranked 1st, 17th, 22nd, 33rd and 35th respectively. Looking at the Pettway and Johnson’s statistics during these games, the Tiger running backs produced well for Auburn.

Pettway only played in three of those games—Arkansas State, LSU and Alabama—but he tallied 230 yards on 47 carries. That gives him an average of 76.7 yards per game and an average of 4.89 yards per carry against top-50 rush defenses. Johnson meanwhile saw action against all five teams. Through those five games he recorded 449 yards and four touchdowns on 93 carries. That gives Johnson an average of 89.8 yards per game and an average of 4.83 yards per run.

While Pettway and Johnson have both proven themselves against better run defenses than Oklahoma’s, they are both finally healthy at the same time for the first time in three months as both have fully recovered from quad and ankle injuries, respectively.

Imagine what a healthy Pettway and Johnson can do to this Oklahoma run defense.

Since Auburn is reliant on the run game, one would assume Oklahoma may just stack the box to keep Pettway and Johnson in-check. However, this is where can the Tigers’ run offense can benefit their pass offense.

Auburn quarterback Sean White doesn’t have eye popping statistics. For the season, White has only thrown for 1,644 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions. Despite the underwhelming numbers, White has been effective tossing the ball around as he has completed 65.2 percent of his passes.

Since White is so good at distributing the ball, he could possibly pick apart Oklahoma’s weak pass defense. If OU gets so concerned about Auburn’s run game, White and the Tigers should see man-coverage and should be able to capitalize on some major opportunities through the air. While the run game could help benefit the pass game, make no mistake, Auburn will run the ball no matter if the Sooners try to stack the box.

Entering this game, the Tigers should feel optimistic because their run game has proven itself against top-level opponents and Pettway and Johnson are both healthy for the first time in months.