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With a slow start, missed opportunities on turnovers and a comeback that came up just short, Auburn (3-6, 1-5 SEC) fought as its coach said, but the Tigers could not pull off the upset in Starkville.
The Tigers rallied with a comeback after being down 24-3, but the Bulldogs (6-3, 3-3 SEC) were able to get a few more plays when it counted and defeated Auburn 39-33.
Carnell Williams is 0-1 in his head coaching career, but he delivered the Tigers’ most inspired performance of the year and the team’s biggest comeback by far.
“Man, people who know me know that I am so focused on the moment now,” said Williams when asked about the rest of the season. “I’m focused on this team and what we have to do this week. I’ll leave the future for what the future brings.”
Penalties proved to be costly for the Tigers in more ways than one. After taking a three-point lead, the special teams unit, which had been struggling through most of the night, was called for a costly face-mask penalty that gave MSU 15 extra yards and ultimately an easier field goal attempt to tie the game.
Then in overtime, following an Anders Carlson miss, J.D. Rhym was called for a costly pass interference penalty that put the opposing offense at the five, giving them an easy run in for their first rushing touchdown of the game and the victory.
It was a long week for the Tigers’ coaching staff, as Williams and company had to familiarize themselves with the playbook following the firing of Bryan Harsin and Eric Kiesau. It showed on the field when Auburn finished the game with 14 penalties for 125 yards, compared to the Bulldogs’ five penalties for 35 yards.
The penalties were costly and will hurt in the morning, but few believed that Auburn would even be in the game following a terrible first quarter. Auburn, a defense that has struggled to generate turnovers this year, forced two in the first half. Despite the efforts of the defense, the offense could not capitalize, managing just three points off the two opportunities.
"We laid an egg in the first half,” Williams said. “We've got to put them in better position. That starts with me. That's on me."
The two halves were a night-and-day difference from the Auburn of previous weeks, outscoring its opponents in the second half behind a defense that held the dangerous Air Raid of Mike Leach scoreless in the first 26 minutes of the second half.
“We didn’t make any adjustments, really. We tweaked a few calls, but we just played our game,” said defensive lineman Colby Wooden. “We kept fighting and kept rushing.”
Wooden and Derick Hall combined for three sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
With the defense stuffing Will Rogers and company, Auburn scored 22 unanswered points, taking a 25-24 lead with over six-and-a-half minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Then, the Leach offense came alive, outscoring Auburn 15-8 through the rest of the game, including a crucial field goal to tie it at 33 in regulation, despite Williams icing the MSU kicker twice.
On the ensuing kickoff, disaster struck when an intended squib kick from MSU bounced off of running back Sean Jackson and gave the Bulldogs the ball and a chance to score. The ensuing 58-yard field goal attempt sailed short and Auburn survived to overtime.
Will Rogers picked apart the Auburn defense with 42 completions on 59 attempts for 357 yards, three touchdowns and one costly interception in the third quarter. The Auburn defense was solid on the run and shut it down, holding the Bulldogs to 13 yards on the ground, including four sacks.
Despite the heartbreaker, Auburn’s locker room remained optimistic.
“It hurts, like every loss does,” said quarterback Robby Ashford. “But at the end of the day, we’re proud because we fought our butts off.”
Ashford could not make anything happen in the passing game, with 75 yards on seven completions versus 22 attempts, but his legs were the difference, leading the team in rushing with 108 yards and the first two touchdowns of the game for the Tigers.
The running game was Auburn’s offense, and it came alive late in the game, led by Ashford, along with Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter, who scored the final two go-ahead touchdowns for the Tigers.
Bigsby and Hunter combined for 143 yards on the ground and gave the juice that the offense needed.
“Yeah, we dealt with adversity this week. But, in a way — in a strange way — it brought us closer together,” Wooden said. “It makes you realize, like, coaches could be here today and gone tomorrow. So you've got to rely on your brothers. I love them."
Auburn will try and move forward under its new coach as they get a second week of practice under the new staff and prepare for Texas A&M (3-6) to step inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for a Saturday night SEC contest.
“I’m proud of my team and proud of my coaches. I’m excited for next week, going back into Jordan-Hare. It’s gonna be exciting, for sure,” said Keionte Scott.
The game will kick off at 6:30 p.m. CST.
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