AUBURN — Auburn’s seniors went out with a bang, and the Tigers (5-6, 2-5 SEC) are winners of two in a row after a shutout of the Western Kentucky offense in the second half led to a 41-17 Auburn victory.
After giving up 290 yards in the first half, Auburn’s defense flipped the script in the final 30 minutes of action, holding the Hilltoppers (7-5, 5-2 C-USA) to just 109 yards, no points and forcing two turnovers.
“Coach Schmedding, heck of a coach. [He] and that staff do a heck of a job,” said interim head coach Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. “They [the players] believe that they can shut people, from DHall to Colby Wooden.”
The second half domination was capped off by a D.J. James pick-six, the first of his career, which iced the game at 41-17, a score that would remain after two sacks by redshirt freshman Dyland Brooks and senior edge Hayden Brice ended the Hilltoppers' last drive.
The second half started slow for both teams, with an exchange of punts and a Jaylin Simpson interception that was followed by an Auburn three-and-out, but Auburn broke the scoring drought with a short field goal from Alex McPherson. This was McPherson’s second made kick of the game as the freshman was 2-2 and broke the tie 20-17.
After another defensive stop, Auburn began to break the game open behind a 35-yard touchdown run from veteran running back Tank Bigsby, his second of the game. After struggling with 23 yards on 10 carries in the first half, Bigsby came alive in the second, with 87 yards on eight carries.
The running game as a whole struggled in the first half, with just 71 yards on 19 carries, but it came alive behind a more powerful and aggressive offensive line, tearing through the Hilltopper defense for 181 yards on 23 carries.
"It was just more of we got the plays we just got to execute. And that was the plan,” said senior center Brandon Council. “What he called? We need to go out there and make something happen. And that's what we did.”
Bigsby’s partner in crime Jarquez Hunter was right there with him, getting 103 yards on 13 carries and his one rushing touchdown of the game giving Auburn a 34-17 lead in the fourth quarter, before James’ pick iced the game.
With Bigsby and Hunter each getting 100 yards in back-to-back games against FBS opponents, that is the first time that has happened at Auburn since the start of the 2009 season.
“I told Tank when we signed Jarquez, I said, 'Hey, 27 gonna be the best thing that happens to you,’” Williams said. “I love to see them two guys rumbling, man, love it. I love that one-two punch.”
Hunter was also a vital part of the offense in the first half, and while the running game struggled, Cadillac and his staff found a way to get Auburn’s playmakers involved. Following a Tank Bigsby touchdown run in the first quarter, Auburn went to its No. 2 back with a trick play running back pass that worked to perfection.
Hunter found wide receiver Koy Moore in the end zone for the 20-yard touchdown and extended the Tigers’ lead to 17-3.
Not to be outdone, Western Kentucky controlled the last seven minutes of first half action, getting 155 yards on 21 plays, with each drive ending in a touchdown catch for tight end Joshua Simon and tying the game as the teams headed to the locker rooms.
Auburn had given up another lead, like many times before in this long season, but the team did not wilt under the pressure, and it started with Cadillac Williams.
“Being tied 17-17 going into half, to hear D-Hall and those seniors come and rally the troops, and you know, I know you all want to talk about probably what we did in the second half and what adjustments were so great,” Williams said. “I honestly left the room and let them have it.”
On senior day, it was Auburn’s seniors that Williams turned to, and Derick Hall among them. Hall did not have his normal day on the stat sheet, but he was the leader of this defense once again, and ultimately, the shutdown of Western Kentucky, which has been one of the best offenses in the country, that made all the difference.
Through 11 games this year, Western Kentucky completed 67.5% of its passes per game. Auburn’s defense held one of the best passing offenses in the country to completing just 47% of its passes.
“Shout out to our secondary. They definitely locked them down. You know, it was a couple of times we almost got there that they got the ball off. But they stepped up when they needed to,” said junior defensive lineman Colby Wooden. Wooden, despite being a junior, participated in the senior day activities. He did not reveal if this was his last game inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Hilltoppers averaged five yards per carry through the first 11 games, and Auburn held them to just 3.3 yards per carry.
After second half failures in many games this year, Auburn has outscored two of its last three opponents in the second half.
“They played a really good game tonight. I’m really proud of that coaching staff and that team,” said Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton. “They’ve really rallied the past couple of weeks, and I am really happy for coach Williams. He is doing a really, really good job and wish them the best luck in their last game.”
Helton is not the only supporter of Cadillac, and after his second win in the interim position, the rumblings of promoting him to the full-time position will continue, but he remains focused on the task in front of him.
“I'm sure you guys are going to get the next coach. I don't know, I really don't care,” Williams said. “My seat don’t dictate my service. I mean, Auburn is special. Those kids are special. A lot of people that took a chance on me and poured into my life, that gave me hope when I was hopeless so again my seat don't dictate my service.”
For Auburn’s senior class, their time in Jordan-Hare Stadium has come to end, but they will put on the orange-and-blue one last time as the Tigers travel to Tuscaloosa for the 87th Iron Bowl against Alabama.
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