ATLANTA -- South Carolina believed its pass defense had made strides during the Gamecocks' three-game win streak entering the SEC title game
Auburn and Cam Newton proved otherwise during the course of the Tigers' 56-17 rout Saturday.
Newton had 281 passing yards at halftime and finished with a season-high 335 yards on 17-of-28 passing. Newton threw four touchdowns - tying a season high.
Often, as has been the case all season, Tigers receivers were roaming free downfield. Coverage breakdowns of all varieties severely hurt the Gamecocks.
"We'd had three, four, five weeks where we'd play a little bit more confidently," USC defensive head coach Ellis Johnson said. "You just can't believe the number of missed assignments."
Giving up a 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown at the halftime horn was particularly crushing. It gave Auburn a 28-14 halftime cushion.
"It's poor coverage. We had a bunch of busted assignments," Gamecocks spur Antonio Allen said. "We wish we could have them back. It is what it is."
Auburn's top two receivers had 12 catches for 280 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps USC underestimated speedsters Darvin Adams and Emory Blake?
"We weren't really scared of their receivers," Allen said. "We were just worried about Cam. Everything goes through him. We tried our best to contain him, which we failed to do."
Auburn did a good job of limiting South Carolina stars Alshon Jeffery (four catches for 36 yards and a touchdown) and Marcus Lattimore (16 carries for 85 yards).
The only other games against FBS foes this season in which Jeffery was held below 100 yards receiving and Lattimore below 100 yards rushing: Kentucky and Arkansas, both losses.
Gamecock cornerback C.C. Whitlock suffered a strained ACL in the third quarter and did not return. Defensive linemen Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson limped off the field with injuries in the first half but returned before halftime.
Whitlock's injury is a major concern going into the bowl game because South Carolina already is thin at corner.
Auburn set SEC Championship Game records for points (56), touchdowns (eight) and total offense (589 yards).
Cam Newton's 408 yards of total offense fell short of the SEC title game record of 431 set by Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell in 2004. Darvin Adams set a record with 217 receiving yards - all in the first half.
"Darvin is the definition of a complete football player," Newton said. "He blocks. He catches. And whatever coach asks him to do, he's willing to do it. And that just goes to show you what he did today, just the little thing that we see every single day out of Darvin."
'Hail Mary' works
The Auburn offense works on a "Hail Mary" pass but it almost never works.
"I think it worked once during the preseason," Auburn offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said with a chuckle. "I can't remember the last time it worked in practice, it's been that long." Ziemba said he was already thinking about some of the adjustments the Tigers were going to make in the locker room for the second half when Cam Newton heaved the ball into the end zone as time was running out in the first half. Darvin Adams caught it for the momentum-swinging touchdown.
Adams said the play is more successful than Ziemba might think.
"I know that play has worked more than once in practice," Adams said. "I know I've been able to come up with a catch in practice. It's the same in practice as it was here tonight, just be in the right place at the right time."
It was only South Carolina's second football game in a domed stadium. The first? A 27-19 loss to Houston at the Astrodome on Sept. 21, 1973, the night after Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the famed "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match at the same facility.
The Post and Courier's Andrew Miller and Gene Sapakoff contributed to this story.