Every one of the Gamecocks knew they let Auburn's do-everything quarterback, Cam Newton, run all over them on Sept. 25, but not many could specify what it was that Newton did so well. It was obvious the guy was a great runner, powerful but shifty, when he broke a 54-yard run for the game's first touchdown, drawing two USC safeties in so they knocked each other off the route.
It was further obvious that Newton spearheaded the Tigers' offense, rushing for 176 yards and passing for 158 while scoring three touchdowns and throwing two more. The way he could take the snap, then hold it long enough for USC's defense to get a read on him before craftily inserting it into his tailback's hands from behind, was enough to make Ellis Johnson lose sleep thinking of the matchup if it happened again.
It has happened again. The No. 18 Gamecocks (9-3) take on the No. 2 Tigers (12-0) on Saturday with the SEC championship on the line. Naturally, the questions are centering on what happened last time and how the problems can be solved this time.
At least one defender thinks it's not a question of what Newton can do, but what the defense didn't do the first time.
"Our defense is based on assignment. When someone's not doing their assignment, it makes everybody else look bad, understand?," safety Akeem Auguste said with the subtlety of cannon fire. "If somebody has the quarterback on this play and they don't get the quarterback and the quarterback's running free, everybody's looking like, 'What's going on?' Somebody blew an assignment."
Newton's game against USC was the one that really vaulted him into the discussion as the nation's best player, although he had made plenty of highlight reels in the three previous contests. When he single-handedly led the Tigers back from a 20-7 second-quarter deficit against the Gamecocks, the Heisman Trophy talks began in earnest.
Those haven't slowed, although many question if Newton deserves it considering the serious pay-for-play allegations against him. Nothing has been proven, which would cause Steve Spurrier, for one, to vote Newton for Heisman.
He, along with the rest of the Gamecocks, hope Newton doesn't clinch it on Saturday.
"Newton, he can do it all," tailback Marcus Lattimore said. "He can throw the ball. When he has to take off, he'll take off. He can make people miss, and he's big and fast at the same time. It's something I've never seen. Nobody has stopped him up to this point."
The book reads to stop Auburn, stop Newton, but everybody else has known that for the last eight games and no one has done it yet. Alabama limited Newton to 39 rushing yards, but the quarterback showed off a surprisingly fluid passing game, completing 13-of-20 throws for 216 yards.
The Gamecocks, whose defense was shredded against Arkansas a month ago, have played three straight terrific games. The defense has re-gained its confidence and been on the ball against the other teams' playmakers, but Newton will be its stiffest challenge yet.
"Just him being the athlete that he is," linebacker Josh Dickerson said. "His running ability, he's a great thrower, just a great all-around athlete."
USC has faced him before, which would seem an advantage, but Newton has gotten better since, as have the Gamecocks. The man's talents are unique, though, which had the Gamecocks struggling while trying to find a way to describe him.
"Florida's got to be the fastest offense," Auguste said, refuting the idea of Auburn's offense being the quickest that USC has faced. "Cam is probably the best ... nope, Ryan Mallett is probably the best quarterback we've played against this year.
"Cam is just different, I guess. There ain't too many things he can't do."