COLUMBIA, S.C. - Kenny Irons spent the last few days downplaying his return to the stadium he once called home.
But after second-ranked Auburn squeaked past South Carolina 24-17 in a Thursday night thriller that came down to the last play, the Heisman Trophy candidate finally could reveal his true feelings.
"It was special," the Auburn tailback and South Carolina transfer said. "I didn't want to give them anything to feed off of before the game, so I kept everything under the radar. But it's a great feeling. It's a great win."
And it hardly mattered that his performance didn't measure up to his lofty expectations.
"Actually, I envisioned 250 yards, four touchdowns and me sitting down with us winning like 34-0 going into the fourth quarter," Irons said with a laugh.
Irons wasn't quite that good.
But he was good enough.
The senior tailback rushed for 117 yards and scored twice to help the Tigers (5-0) keep their national championship hopes alive. Each of his 1-yard touchdown runs came on fourth-down plays that required second effort.
He delivered the type of performance that could only make South Carolina fans wonder what might have been. Then again, they've been wondering that since this former fourth-string Gamecock tailback made the leap to stardom last year.
Irons rushed for 201 yards his freshman year at South Carolina, but things quickly went downhill from there.
Former Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz promised Demetris Summers the start in the 2003 season opener if the five-star prospect came to South Carolina. Summers signed with the Gamecocks and rushed for 638 yards that fall while Irons fell out of favor.
Irons carried the ball just 19 times for 51 yards as a sophomore and eventually decided he needed a change. When Holtz granted Irons permission to transfer to an SEC rival, the disgruntled running back headed to Auburn.
He hasn't looked back since.
Irons won the SEC rushing title last year, and leads the conference in rushing again this season.
And as for that prize recruit who kept Irons out of South Carolina's starting lineup? Summers played just two seasons with the Gamecocks before getting kicked off the team.
Irons said he harbors no bitterness toward his old team.
He still speaks to former teammates such as cornerback Fred Bennett and tailback Cory Boyd. Irons went out of his way to praise the Gamecocks'
performance after the game, and he called South Carolina a great team that never gives up.
"There's no hard feelings," Irons said.
But his older brother - Auburn cornerback David Irons - knew how much this game meant to Kenny.
The two Irons brothers served as team captains and gave each other pep talks before the game.
"Kenny, I'm going to go my hardest on my side of the ball," David Irons said. "You go your hardest on your side of the ball."
"Deal," Kenny replied.
Kenny wasted no time living up to his end of the bargain.
He took a pitch and raced 14 yards around the left end on his first carry of the night. He followed that with an 8-yard burst through the right side and a 12-yard scamper through a huge hole on the left side.
When the Tigers faced fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line on their opening series, there was no doubt who would get the ball.
Irons went behind the left side of the line and ran right into South Carolina linebacker Jasper Brinkley. The capacity crowd delivered a huge ovation in anticipation of a goal-line stand.
But the senior tailback refused to be denied. With Brinkley clutching him all the way, Irons reached his arm across the goal line to give Auburn a 7-0 lead.
About two hours later, Irons met Brinkley near the goal line once more.
Auburn was clinging to a 17-10 advantage when it faced another fourth-and-goal from the 1 at the start of the fourth quarter. Irons ran through the right side and again found Brinkley, who grabbed the tailback by the waist.
Irons stretched his arm across the plane of the end zone just before losing control of the ball.
"It's just about effort," Irons said.
Irons' night wasn't perfect.
He failed to convert a third-and-2 with Auburn leading 17-10 as the Tigers tried to run out the clock midway through the fourth quarter. South Carolina regained possession and drove all the way to the Tigers' 5-yard line.
For a few minutes, it seemed as though Irons' return to South Carolina might end in tears instead of triumph. Auburn didn't clinch the victory until Patrick Lee broke up Syvelle Newton's pass to Sidney Rice in the end zone on the game's final play.
"I messed up," Irons said. "I don't know why I jumped in the air. I don't know what was going through my head. I should have run the guy over like I usually do."
Even with that late mistake, Irons delivered his 10th career 100-yard performance. Not bad for someone who is still battling a knee injury that sidelined him last weekend against Buffalo.
"When he's 100 percent the guy can't be stopped," David Irons said. "He's at about 85 percent now. He'll be better."