When Carnell “Cadillac” Williams took over as interim head coach, he inherited a program not in a state of disarray since the dreaded 2012 season in the Plains. Auburn was 3-10 in their last 13 games and was struggling for bowl eligibility after a blowout home loss to Arkansas.
Williams saw the daunting task ahead and summoned the staff, including new co-offensive coordinator Will Friend. With the revamped staff, Williams turned the season around, and Friend was a key part of it, creating the team’s new motto in the process: fight or quit.
That was the challenge for this squad, this senior class, and they responded on the track and fought until the final whistle in a 49-27 loss to the Crimson Tide of Alabama.
“He gave everything and we gave everything for him,” said second running back Jarquez Hunter.
After a defensive struggle last year, this game was an offensive explosion on both sides. The Crimson Tide managed 35 points in the first half and almost secured the win within the first 30 minutes. Bryce Young excelled in what might be his last game at Bryant-Denny, breaking through Auburn’s defense with 20 completions on 30 attempts for 343 yards and three touchdowns.
“We didn’t make it through today’s game. First half: two turnovers, five false starts, five big plays,” Williams said. “Like I said to those guys at half-time, I didn’t work well enough to prepare those guys.”
Ultimately, the 35-14 lead at halftime was too much for the Tigers to overcome in Tuscaloosa. Alabama extended their lead with a touchdown on the first drive of the second half and it looked like the loss was in the 87th Iron Bowl, but Cadillac didn’t stop waving the towel and his team didn’t give up.
Auburn scored on three of his four possessions in the second half, and the defense held the Crimson Tide down on a punt, an interception and a touchdown after a failed onside kick attempt, giving the opposing offense short field.
“We played a bit slow but as the game progressed we played harder and harder. The offensive got going,” Hunter said.
Led by the combination of Hunter, Robby Ashford and Tank Bigsby, the Auburn offensive rushed for 318 yards, the most Alabama has ceded since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year at Tuscaloosa. Hunter ended his sophomore season with 134 yards on 11 carries, while fellow running back Tank Bigsby rushed for 63 yards on 15 carries in what may be his last game in the Orange-Blue tournaments.
The duo has been a crucial part of Auburn’s offensive resurgence as the Tigers have over 1,000 yards on the ground in the last four games of the season.
“I told these guys they had to be special,” Williams said. “When I got the temp job, I told them, ‘You guys have to be that spark.'”
The duo reinforced and freshman quarterback Robby Ashford was right there, leading the fight in the second half for the Tigers. Ashford was originally the third man on the depth chart before an injury to Zach Calzada ended his season before it started and TJ Finley struggled out of goal before injuring his shoulder.
Ashford had his passing problems, but the freshman led his team into battle in one of the most hostile environments in college football.
“The guy is a fighter. He will compete. He’s going to give you everything he’s got,” Williams said. “One of the better athletes I’ve ever seen. He tried to force us to win this.”
Ashford was 77 yards 11 of 23 through the air and a touchdown pass to Ja’Varrius Johnson, but he was brilliant on the ground with some clutch scrambles that kept the drives alive.
He finished the contest with 134 yards on ground and two touchdowns as he led the charge in one of Auburn’s best offensive performances of the year. The freshman quarterback’s first season in the Plains may be over, but he’s looking forward to another offseason and a chance to make the next step in 2023.
“This 2022 Auburn team has been a blessing to me without a doubt,” Ashford said, “it doesn’t matter who the head coach is, our goal is to contend for an SEC championship and a national championship next year. And we will do everything we can to achieve that.”
Auburn’s season could be over as the Tigers failed to hit the six-win threshold to make a bowl game. However, if there aren’t enough six-win teams this season, the bowl games will have to draw from the pool of 5-7 teams, and there’s a chance that Auburn will be selected. Still, this could be the last game for the likes of seniors Derick Hall, Owen Pappoe and John Samuel Shenker, the captains who kept this team together through a tumultuous season.
“I am proud of these 24 seniors. This is the last time a lot of the guys will put on pads,” Williams said. “Whether it’s college or work, I know personally how tough that’s going to be.”
Auburn’s regular season is over, and now the team will try to move forward while the rest of the world waits, wondering who Auburn will hire as the next head coach.
Rumors have been circulating for weeks, but it’s still unclear where Auburn will go from here. Cadillac’s tenure as interim head coach has come to an end and he has once again put his stamp on the program.
“You can be different and do that and be successful. You can serve. You can tackle it where you’re dealing with these kids, so you’re really changing lives,” Williams said. “No matter what happens, I have been blessed. I have been blessed by Auburn, the Auburn family, this team, these employees.”
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