The debut of interim Carnell 'Cadillac' Williams at head coach was everything the Bryan Harsin era wasn't. Intensity. Execution. Finishing. But it fell just short.
Auburn led Mississippi State at halftime last year by 18 and lost. The Tigers took an 18-point deficit to the tunnel on Saturday and finished regulation with a knotted scoreboard. Auburn outscored MSU by 18 in the second half, but the Bulldogs came out on top after overtime, 39-33.
"I'm so proud of my guys. They fought," Williams said. "I emphasized two things all week: serve and believe. Those guys exemplified that. We didn't complete the mission. I'm proud of those guys. They fought their tail off."
Auburn put itself in position all second half to take the lead, but it couldn't find the end zone in the first half despite entering MSU's red zone twice.
The Tigers won 3-0 in the turnover battle (they hadn't gotten multiple takeaways in a game yet this season), they were running the ball effectively and shutting down the Bulldog rushing attack (Auburn led in rushing yards 80-12). It led in time of possession after a half and its average field position was its own 46, but didn't lead until Tank Bigsby took a 41-yard handoff to the house with 6:36 left in the fourth quarter.
En route to the halftime break, Williams said the Tigers were going to keep fighting.
MSU ensured that was true. MSU quarterback Will Rogers threw his eighth TD versus Auburn in two years and his third of the night with 3:49 left to put the Bulldogs ahead. After Jarquez Hunter bounced off a tackler to score Auburn's fourth rushing TD of the night, Matt Biscardi drilled three 44-yard field goals after two attempts to ice the kicker by Williams.
Just like he was doing at halftime though, Williams ended regulation jumping up and down, running from player to player and waving his hands. When the clock hit all zeros, the Tigers were indeed still fighting.
"Nobody quit," Williams said. "I know the Auburn family is proud of those guys."
MSU won the OT coin toss and put the ball in Auburn's hands first. Despite Auburn scoring 27 points in the second half, including two Robby Ashford rushing TDs and one score a piece from Bigsby and Hunter, it couldn't muster any more offense in OT.
After a four-yard Hunter push sandwiched between two incompletions from Ashford, Anders Carlson ended his perfect, 2-for-2 day by missing a 38-yard kick.
MSU took over at the Auburn 25 simply needing points for a win, and three plays later, Jo'quavious Marks added to MSU's eight rushing yards by taking it five yards into the end zone to punch its postseason ticket with its sixth win.
Auburn falls to 3-6 and remains at the bottom of the SEC West along with Texas A&M, but things are looking up as the Williams era started off with more firepower than Auburn has had all season. It scored a second-best on the season 33 points (34 versus Ole Miss) and recorded multiple takeaways for the first time this season. Additionally, the Auburn offense managed to perfect the game of takeaway for the second week in a row (no turnovers versus Arkansas or MSU) in drastically different fashion.
Auburn ran the ball 46 times for 256 yards, while the defense hammered down on the Bulldogs' rushing game. They ran 18 times for 13 yards, but as is typical of MSU head coach Mike Leach's offenses, their success came via Rogers' arm and an explosive air-raid offense.
Entering the game tied with Dak Prescott for most career passing TDs for a MSU QB (70), he ended the night as the school's leader after throwing for three more TDs and 357 yards. He hit 11 different receivers, led by Rara Thomas, who racked up 84 yards and two scores on six catches.
Auburn's passing game, however, was not as lively as its rushing attack. Ashford ended his day 7-for-22 with 75 yards. Despite rushing for 108 yards in the game and two TDs in the third quarter, he spent the majority of the time with the ball in his hands eluding MSU defenders in the backfield.
MSU tallied four sacks, 11 tackles for loss and stopped two of Auburn's three late two-point conversion attempts. Although Auburn's defense was similarly effective in the opposite phase of the game with 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks, Auburn failed to take advantage of the opportunities the defense created early on.
Auburn was 1-for-8 on third down conversions and 0-for-2 on fourth downs at halftime, and despite reaching MSU's red zone twice, Auburn only left with six points. One of those times was when Dylan Brooks scooped up a Jeffrey M'Ba strip sack and set up the offense at the MSU 8-yard line. But in three plays, the offense lost two yards and Carlson came on for a field goal.
Despite a fight to the end, Auburn's problem was the utter opposite of what it was under Bryan Harsin when Auburn watched competitive games at halftime get ugly in the second half. The Tigers made it a little too hard on themselves by missing early opportunities.
Auburn falls to 3-6, and each remaining game is a must-win if Auburn is to make the postseason. With Texas A&M, Western Kentucky and Alabama remaining, Williams' push for the head coaching job is far from over.
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Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.