AUBURN, Ala. — Cam Newton’s final run Saturday left him exhausted, sprawled on his back for a moment as he stared at the darkening sky.
The 10-yard scamper sealed No. 4 Auburn’s 24-17 win against previously unbeaten No. 6 LSU, establishing the SEC’s indisputable frontrunner.
After the final seconds ticked off, Auburn’s quarterback found a second wind, sprinting toward the visitor’s sideline and leaping a 3-foot guard rail to celebrate with the still-cheering Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd.
“I think the adrenaline was still pumping,” Newton said with a smile.
Big wins will do that for you. Auburn (8-0, 5-0 SEC) emerged with a one-game lead on the pack in the highly competitive SEC West with three conference games remaining.
Borrowing a phrase from Auburn coach Gene Chizik, has this team gone from good to great?
“I don’t know that you can make that claim until the end of the year to figure out exactly where you land,” Chizik said. “I think we’ve gone from good to better.”
Auburn did it with its bread and butter, grinding out 440 rushing yards, the fifth-most in school history and its most against an SEC foe.
Considering the opponent, the achievement was even more impressive. LSU (7-1, 4-1 SEC) entered the game with the No. 1 rushing defense in the league, allowing 83.6 yards per game. The Bengal Tigers had allowed 402 rushing yards to their first four SEC opponents combined this year.
“I think it’s a lot of hard work paying off,” Auburn center Ryan Pugh said. “That defense is as good as you’ll play every year. Those guys are athletic. They’ve got NFL talent all over the field.”
Newton, the Heisman Trophy favorite — yes, it’s safe to say it at this point — did most of the work, running 28 times for a career-high 217 yards and two touchdowns. He added 86 passing yards.
“Plain and simple, he’s the best quarterback in the country,” LSU linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said.
Newton broke two records in the process: the SEC mark for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback (1,077) and Pat Sullivan’s 40-year-old school record for touchdowns accounted for (27) in a season.
But Newton wasn’t alone in punishing LSU’s formidable front. Mike Dyer ran for 100 yards, the second time he has reached the century mark in his career. Despite a balky right knee, he gave Auburn an edge inside, churning his legs as he and his line moved the pile 5 yards at the end of a play.
“I heard the crowd,” Dyer said. “I felt the guys behind me just pushing it. I felt like we were all in it together.”
Speedster Onterio McCalebb wasn’t left out, sprinting free up the left sideline on a sweep play for a 70-yard touchdown that broke a 17-all tie with 5:05 to play.
“Once I got around the corner, I wasn’t going to let anybody catch me,” McCalebb said.
Auburn out-gained LSU 526-243 but couldn’t put the game away. After going into halftime tied at 10, Newton scored on a 49-yard run, weaving through the LSU defense before powering his way over All-American cornerback Patrick Patterson for the touchdown.
“There’s a want in every football player to take someone on, and that’s what we did,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Sometimes, when that person is 250 pounds, it can be a little much.”
It was a Heisman-worthy highlight.
“It’s just a play that is in my job description to make,” Newton said.
LSU hung around, mostly because of its special teams. Punter Derek Helton pinned Auburn inside its 2-yard line on three occasions, twice in the third quarter.
But LSU couldn’t do anything with the field position. Juggling between quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, the Bengal Tigers managed only 29 yards of offense in the third, getting nothing out of drives that started at its own 44, 44 and 47-yard line.
“We were just fighting, clawing and scrapped our way to playing well today,” Chizik said of the defense.
Miles, ever the gambler, took it out of his quarterback’s hands in the fourth quarter. He called for a lateral to running back Spencer Ware, who lobbed a 39-yard pass to Rueben Randle after the Auburn defense bit. The touchdown tied the game at 17 with 12:16 to play.
But Auburn kept grinding out yards on the ground. After failing to convert a fourth down in LSU territory, Auburn got the ball back at its own 10.
Three plays later, McCalebb was racing down the sideline for the winning touchdown, the latest in a season’s worth of games decided in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t know what makes team chemistry,” Chizik said. “I have no clue. I only know that in my heart of hearts that we have it.”