PHENIX CITY – In Auburn High’s back-and-forth battle with Central-Phenix City on Friday night, the Tigers knew they had to pull out all the stops in order to top the Red Devils. Thanks to some gutsy play-calling and excellent play in all three phases of the game, the Tigers served Central its first region loss in five years.
Auburn running back JT Rogers punched in a five-yard rushing touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, and the Tigers ran a fake punt and converted a crucial fourth down in the final minutes to close out a dramatic 29-28 victory over Central. The win featured a number of wild moments for Auburn, which trailed 21-3 in the first quarter then came roaring back to beat their biggest region rival for the first time in seven years.
“I'm so proud of our kids. It was a heck of an effort by our team. Central's had our numbers for years, so for us to overcome and just keep battling, there at the end was pretty special,” Winegarden said. “I think (the comeback) just says that we're resilient. These kids love playing football. They love our team. It's been a lot of fun, so I'm really proud of them. It's a great night for them.”
The Tigers entered the third quarter with a 23-20 lead and all the momentum thanks to 20 unanswered points, but Central running back Joseph McKay had no intentions in letting Auburn run away with the game.
After Auburn’s opening possession of the second half ended on a fumble, McKay paced the Central offense as he did throughout the night. He ended the Red Devils’ first drive of the third quarter in style, scoring on a four-yard run to give the Red Devils a 28-23 lead with 8:56 to go in the third.
McKay ended the night with 18 carries for 88 yards with two rushing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown.
Auburn struggled to respond after McKay’s second rushing touchdown, as its next three drives ended with two punts and a turnover on downs on the Central 22-yard line. To its credit, the Tigers’ defense held firm in limiting the Central offense, and after the Red Devils punted from inside their own end zone Auburn quarterback Matthew Caldwell and his teammates were set to finally take advantage.
Caldwell and the offense took over on the Central 23 yard-line and worked diligently to get back to the end zone. After Caldwell hit Zae Ray for a 12-yard gain to the Red Devils’ 6, Central’s defenders buckled down and refused to let Rogers or fellow running back Amaury Hutchinson reach the goal line.
Well, at least the first time for Rogers.
On his second carry of the possession on third and goal, Rogers raced to the right corner of the end zone and dove across the plane to give the Tigers a 29-28 advantage with 6:21 left in the fourth. Auburn’s two-point conversion was unsuccessful, which put all the pressure on the defense to stand tall one more time.
To the Tigers’ credit, that’s exactly what they did.
Central’s offense seemed to stuck in second gear throughout the second half thanks to the pesky Auburn defenders, who excelled in slowing down McKay and the Red Devils’ rushing attack with the game on the line. The Red Devils had two incompletions and a run for a two-yard loss following Rogers’ score, and given the field position they had no choice but to punt.
Auburn worked the clock after the Central punt, but after three short runs the Tigers faced a 4th-and-1 from the Central 48-yard line. With punter Matthew Rhodes back deep, the team instead snapped the ball to one of the backs, who cut to his left as Rhodes ran right and patiently followed his blockers.
The risky move left the Auburn fans at Garrett-Harrison Stadium on edge until the official measurement registered a first-down call from the officiating crew. After another first down, the game was over.
“We needed a yard, and we knew if we could get a first down and run the clock out the game would be over,” Winegarden said about the fake punt. “We were playing to win, man. That's all I can say.”
The dramatic second half followed the first two quarters in which Central seemed on pace to blow out Auburn before the Tigers registered the rally of a lifetime.
Auburn fell behind 21-3 late in the first quarter following Trey Miles’ two-yard touchdown run when the Tigers finally found a rhythm and the answers they so desperately needed.
Auburn finally found the end zone courtesy Amaury Hutchinson’s four-yard touchdown run to cut Central’s lead to 21-10 with 11:45 left in the second quarter. Following a great defensive stop, the Tigers drove down and got creative to add points with a receiver reverse that saw Bryson Clague hit Matthew Caldwell for a 11-yard touchdown.
“Since last year we've had that play in. We tried it once in the Prattville game, and it didn't work. Finally, we got to do it, and it worked out pretty good,” said Caldwell, who was 9-of-20 passing for 136 yards with one touchdown and one interception. “We could have finished better, but I think we still have a lot of good ball to play. Overall, it was still a good win to come in here against Central and get the win.”
An unsuccessful two-point conversion after the Clague-to-Caldwell connection left Auburn trailing 21-16 with 4:56 to go in the second quarter. Luckily for the Tigers, they weren’t done scoring just yet.
The Tigers got excellent field position following a botched snap on a would-be Central punt, and once again the road squad made Central pay. Caldwell added his first passing touchdown in style by hitting Quay Ross, who caught Caldwell’s pass on the 10-yard line, juked out a would-be tackler and fought forward until he finally found the end zone.
The Tigers tacked on the extra point to create a 23-21 lead that they would hold until halftime.
Auburn’s sudden turnaround came as quite the surprise to Central, which seemed destined early on to tack on another blowout victory against the Tigers.
McKay had a monster game against Auburn last year, and he looked set to repeat the performance by ripping off a 48-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage to put the Red Devils ahead 7-0.
After Auburn kicker Josh Owsley tacked on a 36-yard field goal to create a 7-3 contest, McKay found the end zone again, this time on a 12-yard pass from Caleb Nix to push the Red Devils’ lead to 14-3 with 4:52 left in the opening quarter.
A little over three minutes later came Miles’ run to the end zone, which appeared to be the knockout punch the Red Devils needed. Auburn, as it turns out, was only getting started from there.
Auburn’s comeback was not only a product of some well-timed plays but struggles by Central. The Red Devils only had 51 yards after Miles’ touchdown run, and the sluggish offense combined with the botched punt snap and 10 first-half penalties gave the Tigers a window to make things interesting.
The problems only compounded for Central in the second half, most notably with receiver/punter Jackson Meeks sidelined with an injury. The Red Devils struggled to get off punts throughout the night, which gave Auburn excellent field position more than once and left the home squad reeling when the night was over.
In seven meetings against Central, Winegarden’s Tigers had never been able to knock off one of Class 7A’s top programs. That changed Friday, and even though Auburn may very well face Central again come the playoffs, Winegarden and his players were sure to let the well-earned moment soak in.
“We just wanted to prove ourselves. We've got to do it again hopefully in the playoffs with them again. It means a lot,” Caldwell said. “It means a lot to be a part of this team. It's been great ever since I stepped foot in Auburn. It's been nothing but love, but we've still got a long season ahead and a lot more tough games just like this one.”
Auburn High 29, Central-Phenix City 28
A — 3 20 0 6 - 29
C — 21 0 7 0 - 28
C — Joseph McKay 48 run (XP good), 11:26
A — Josh Owsley 36 field goal; 6:59
C — McKay 12 pass from Caleb Nix (XP good), 4:52
C — Miles 2 run (XP good), 1:29
A — Amaury Hutchinson 4 run (XP good), 11:45
A — Matthew Caldwell 11 pass from Bryson Clague (2-pt no good), 4:56