AUBURN — On the coldest night of the year in Auburn, with two of the coldest teams in the SEC doing battle, the Tigers finally ended their five-game losing streak with an ugly but hard-fought win over Texas A&M. Auburn’s defense shut down the Aggies offense in a dominant second-half display that secured the 13-10 victory.
“I always love to watch defense play. I love to watch the defense fly around. I love to watch them, the relentless effort, the grind, the playing together, the 11 men to the ball, the tenacity,” said interim head coach Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. “I love it.”
When Auburn needed a play in the most critical moment, junior defensive lineman Colby Wooden delivered. Primarily an interior defensive lineman, Wooden has been playing more on the edge following Eku Leota’s injury, and on a late fourth quarter drive, he finally got to the quarterback.
He beat Trey Zuhn III badly on the edge and stripped A&M quarterback Conner Weigman, giving Auburn the ball in A&M territory and stealing momentum back for the Tigers.
“He called it right, during the TV timeout before he's like, ‘I'm gonna hit him with a stab club and I'm gonna knock the ball out,’” said captain Derick Hall on the play. “Colby is an amazing player. He's very versatile. He can line up inside, line up outside, just being able to have a counterpart across from me, you know, filling that gap when Eku went down, it's amazing.”
Wooden finished the game with one sack, one forced fumble and three quarterback hurries.
In the first half, Auburn’s offense dominated to the tune of 215 yards, compared to A&M’s 130 yards, but the true story of the half was a lack of points. Each of Auburn’s four drives ended in A&M territory, but only one led to points.
That one drive was a crucial one for Auburn, and a 25-yard jet sweep to Tank Bigsby got the Tigers in the red zone. Ashford then found Ja’Varrius Johnson on the very next play for the first touchdown of the game.
That touchdown from Ashford was his highlight of the game as the freshman quarterback struggled to find any rhythm in the passing game or on the ground. He finished the game 6-of-13 through the air, with one touchdown and two picks, along with 47 yards on the ground.
The key for the Auburn offense was a dynamic running game behind one of the best one-two punches in the nation, Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter. During the tunnel video, Williams challenged the Auburn fans to go crazy, and that message clearly resonated with the two running backs as well, putting up their best performance as a duo in their two years together.
“I mean, a lot of our work we put in the offseason to now and it's good to be able to see it pay off,” said Bigsby. “We push each other every day and we strive for greatness. And we try to be the best to ever do it.”
While not finding the end zone, both backs ran for 121 yards each, and Bigsby was the leading receiver for Auburn with 20 yards on two catches. Hunter added a catch for 11 yards as well.
When Williams became the coach, he wanted Auburn to play true, hard-nosed Auburn football, and they did tonight behind the one-two punch that could remind fans of the days when Cadillac and Ronnie Brown were tearing through SEC defenses.
“I'm so lucky to have the opportunity to coach two guys, high character young men,” Williams said. “It's a joy to see those guys contribute in the way that they contribute.”
On the defensive side, A&M’s offense could not get much going on its first two drives of the game, but the final two drives of the first half were fruitful as the Aggies got 83 yards on the next 19 plays. That momentum did not continue in the second half for the Aggies.
In four third-quarter drives, A&M managed -2 yards and punted the ball four times.
Overall, they finished with 85 yards in the second half and 215 total yards, the lowest amount given up by an Auburn defense in an SEC game since 2011. Quarterback Conner Weigman struggled on the day, finishing with 14 completions on 36 attempts for 121 yards and one touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
“We knew coming out that they wanted to run the ball. We knew that if we got in a third and long we were going to pin our ears back and rush. It was about playing consistent defense and playing together,” Hall said. “It was overall a great team defense effort.”
In the second half, the Tigers' ball control issues, which dominated the team’s start of the year, returned. Auburn had no turnovers in the first 29:59 of the game, but three turnovers in the final 30:01 of the game kept the Aggies within striking distance and killed what little offense Auburn mustered.
With the turnovers, and drives stalling in scoring position, Auburn had to turn to freshman kicker Alex McPherson, who was in for the injured Anders Carlson. McPherson’s first attempt, a 54-yarder in the first half, sailed to the right, but he bounced back with two clutch kicks in the second half, his final kick ultimately icing the game.
"I don't think it was just me. I think yeah, the field goals did make the difference in the end, but the strip sack from Colby, and then when Moe got on it, and it allowed us to get those three points at the end,” McPherson said.
Being back on the winning track is not the only thing that changed around Auburn tonight. Cadillac has filled the program and the fans watching with a new kind of energy that was lacking in recent weeks, and even as the daunting Iron Bowl matchup draws closer, the team and their new coach are celebrating a hard-fought win, and looking forward to what comes next.
“When coach had gotten the job, the building changed and the energy has started to feel more like Auburn. I was missing that a little bit,” Bigsby said. “I'm really happy to have that feeling back because our performance was better and Auburn deserves nothing but the best.”
Auburn will be back in front of its home crowd for the final time next week as the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) will visit Jordan-Hare Stadium. It will be senior day for the Tigers as captains Derick Hall, John Samuel Shenker, Owen Pappoe and many others will be recognized.
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