When Carnell "Cadillac" Williams took over as the interim head coach, he inherited a program that was in a state of disarray not seen around the Plains since the dreaded 2012 season. Auburn was 3-10 in its last 13 games and fighting for bowl eligibility after a blowout loss at home to Arkansas.
Williams saw the daunting task in front of him and pulled the staff together, including new co-offensive coordinator Will Friend. With the new-look staff, Williams turned the season around, and Friend was a vital part of that, creating the team's new motto in the process: fight or quit.
That was the challenge put to this roster, this senior class, and they responded down the stretch, fighting to the final whistle in a 49-27 loss to the Crimson Tide of Alabama.
“He gave it his all, and we gave our all for him,” said sophomore running back Jarquez Hunter.
After a defensive battle last year, this game was an offensive explosion on both sides. The Crimson Tide managed 35 points in the first half, almost securing the win within the first 30 minutes. Bryce Young was excellent in what might be his final game at Bryant-Denny, tearing through the Auburn defense with 20 completions on 30 attempts for 343 yards and three touchdowns.
“Today's game, we didn't get it done. First half: Two turnovers, five false starts, five big plays,” said Williams. “Like I told those guys at halftime, I didn't do a good enough job getting those guys prepared.”
The 35-14 halftime lead was ultimately too much for the Tigers to overcome in Tuscaloosa. Alabama extended its lead with a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, and it looked like the rout was on in the 87th Iron Bowl, but Cadillac did not stop waving his towel and his team did not quit.
Auburn scored on three of its four second-half possessions and the defense held the Crimson Tide to a punt, an interception and a touchdown following a failed onside kick attempt and giving the opposing offense a short field.
“We played a little slow, but as the game went on, we played harder and harder. The offense got going,” Hunter said.
Led by the combination of Hunter, Robby Ashford and Tank Bigsby, the Auburn offense ran for 318 yards, the most Alabama has given up since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. Hunter capped off his sophomore season with 134 yards on 11 carries, while fellow running back Tank Bigsby managed 63 yards on 15 carries in what might be his final game in the orange and blue.
The duo has been a critical part of Auburn’s offensive resurgence as the Tigers have over 1,000 yards on the ground in the final four games of the season.
“I told those guys they're going to have to be special,” Williams said. “When I got the interim job, I told them, 'You're going to have to be that spark.’”
The duo stepped up, and freshman quarterback Robby Ashford was right there, leading the second-half fight for the Tigers. Ashford was originally the third man on the depth chart before an injury to Zach Calzada ended his season before it began and T.J. Finley struggled out of the gate before injuring his shoulder.
Ashford has had his issues in the passing game, but the freshman passer led his team into battle in one of the most hostile environments in college football.
“That guy's a fighter. He's going to compete. He's going to give you everything he has,” Williams said. “One of the better athletes I've been around, ever. He was trying to will us to that win.”
Ashford was 11-of-23 through the air for 77 yards and one touchdown pass to Ja’Varrius Johnson, but he was brilliant on the ground with some clutch scrambles that kept drives alive.
He finished the contest with 134 yards on the ground and two touchdowns as he led the charge for one of Auburn’s best offensive performances of the year. The freshman quarterback's first season on the Plains might be over, but he looks forward to another offseason and a chance to take the next step in 2023.
“This 2022 Auburn team was a blessing to me, without a doubt,” Ashford said, “It doesn’t matter who the head coach is, our goal next year is to compete for an SEC Championship and compete for a national championship. And we’re gonna do whatever it takes to get that done.”
Auburn’s season might be over, as the Tigers did not reach the six-win threshold to make a bowl game. However, if there are not enough teams with six wins this season, the bowl games will have to pull from the pool of 5-7 teams, and there is a chance that Auburn could be selected. Still, this could be the final game for seniors like Derick Hall, Owen Pappoe and John Samuel Shenker, the captains that held this team together through a turbulent season.
“I'm proud of these 24 seniors. This is a lot of those guys' last times to put on pads,” said Williams. “Whether it's college or professional, I personally know how tough that's going to be.”
Auburn’s regular season has come to an end, and now the team will try to move forward as the rest of the world plays the waiting game, wondering who Auburn will hire as the next head coach.
Rumors have been swirling for weeks, but it is still unclear where Auburn will go from here. Cadillac’s time as the interim head coach has come to end, and he left his mark once again on this program.
“You can be different and do this and be successful. You can serve. You can go about it where you make it about these kids, make it about truly changing lives,” Williams said. “Regardless of what goes on, I have been blessed. I have been blessed by Auburn, the Auburn Family, this team, this staff.”
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