There was an inevitability in the air at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It radiated from the bleachers Saturday night, building like a swell well before kickoff and reaching a crescendo as Auburn ran out of the south end-zone tunnel just minutes until gametime.
The atmosphere on the Plains was befitting of an Iron Bowl or a top-top clash, not a meeting of two last-place teams who entered the night on respective five-game losing streaks. This night was something different, though; a renewed sense of hope emerged around the program, and fans rallied around interim head coach Cadillac Williams — an all-time Auburn great and one of their own — as he led Auburn into its first home game under his leadership.
Auburn losing on this night, under these circumstances, on its home turf? That wasn’t happening.
Auburn snapped its five-game skid with a 13-10 win against a reeling Texas A&M, securing its first win since Sept. 24 and the first of Williams’ coaching career, and doing it in front of a sold-out crowd under the lights at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers accomplished it doing precisely what Williams promised throughout the week: playing classic Auburn football, with a virtuoso defensive performance and a strong rushing attack.
Here are AL.com’s key takeaways from Saturday’s game:
Auburn takes advantage of Texas A&M on the ground
Auburn’s run game picked up where it left off last week in Starkville, Miss. A week after rushing for 256 yards against Mississippi State, Auburn turned in an equally impressive performance on the ground against Texas A&M, which entered the game with the SEC’s worst run defense (4.94 yards allowed per carry).
The Tigers ran for 270 yards against the Aggies, with both Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter topping 100 yards on the ground. Bigsby and Hunter finished with dueling 121-yard rushing efforts. It was Hunter’s first 100-yard rushing performance since opening his career with back-to-back 100-yard games last season against Akron and Alabama State. It was also his first time surpassing 100 yards rushing against an FBS opponent.
Hunter eclipsed the 100-yard mark midway through the third quarter. Bigsby hit that mark midway through the fourth, as Auburn tried to stay out of its own way and stave off a pesky Texas A&M.
Of Auburn’s 270 rushing yards, 173 came in the first half, when the Tigers averaged 7.2 yards per carry against Texas A&M’s leaky defensive front. Hunter had 84 of his yards in the first half, averaging 12 yards per touch, while Bigsby had 75 at the break — including 66 on six carries in the first quarter alone.
The strong run game again made up for an inefficient passing attack, as Robby Ashford completed just 6-of-13 passes for 60 yards and a touchdown.
Finishing drives still an issue
Auburn couldn’t seem to shake an issue that has haunted its offense all season, even on a night that carried as much meaning as Saturday, as the Tigers’ offense continued to struggle finishing off drives.
Each of Auburn’s first five drives against Texas A&M ended on the Aggies’ side of the field, yet the Tigers only had seven points to show for it. That lone touchdown came on Auburn’s second possession of the game, as a four-play, 62-yard drive was capped with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Robby Ashford to Ja’Varrius Johnson on a wheel route out of a bunch formation. Johnson was wide open down the right sideline, and Ashford delivered the strike to put Auburn up, 7-0, with 1:33 to go in the first quarter.
Outside of that score, though, Auburn’s offense sputtered after crossing midfield. Auburn failed to score any points on six of its nine drives that finished in Texas A&M territory. Even late in the third quarter, after a 25-yard Texas A&M punt set Auburn up at the Aggies’ 27-yard line, the Tigers couldn’t fully capitalize. They picked up just 9 yards before settling for a 34-yard field goal from freshman Alex McPherson, which stretched the lead to 10-0 with 39 seconds left in the period.
Defense delivers at home
Auburn’s defense pitched a shutout for nearly 50 minutes Saturday night. It couldn’t completely blank Texas A&M, but it was still a vintage performance for a unit that had taken a considerable step back from recent seasons.
The Tigers’ defense dominated a listless Aggies offense, forcing Texas A&M to punt on each of its first nine drives of the night — including five consecutive three-and-outs to open the second half. Auburn’s defense absolutely stonewalled Texas A&M in the third quarter, when the Aggies had minus-2 total yards of offense on 14 plays. Texas A&M finished the second half with just 85 yards, and it had just 5 total yards of second-half offense until its final drive of the night.
Texas A&M didn’t get on the board until 10:48 to go in the game, when it settled for a 48-yard field goal by Randy Bond to capitalize off an interception thrown by Ashford that set the Aggies up at the Tigers’ 39-yard line. Even on that drive, Auburn’s defense stepped up, surrendering just 8 yards before Texas A&M attempted the field goal.
With the game in the balance, Auburn’s defense delivered in the biggest way. The Tigers clung to a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter with the Aggies in possession when Colby Wooden came off the edge and blindsided Texas A&M quarterback Conner Weigman, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Morris Joseph Jr. with 5:34 to play. That gave Auburn the ball at Texas A&M’s 32-yard line. The Tigers sealed the win after that turnover, pushing their lead back to double digits on a 26-yard field goal by McPherson with 3:02 to play.
Texas A&M scored a touchdown with 1:33 to play to cut the final deficit to three points, but it wasn’t nearly enough on a night that saw Auburn’s defense turn in its finest performance of the season. Auburn allowed just 215 total yards and held Texas A&M to just 3.6 yards per play, which was the Tigers’ fewest in an SEC game in 11 years.
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.