By Wil Crews
The Auburn faithful piled into Duck-Samford Stadium on Friday as Auburn High held Central to a season-low in points and beat the Red Devils 35-17 to advance to the AHSAA Class 7A state championship.
Down two scores and clinging to life late in the fourth quarter, Central was unofficially sent home packing when Auburn running back JT Rogers gashed the Central defense for a championship-berth-clinching 60-yard rushing touchdown.
It was Rogers’ second score of the game on a night where he was held relatively in check. Still, it was enough to seal an AHSAA Class 7A championship matchup against defending state champion Thompson on Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
The Auburn win meant more than most as Central bounced the Tigers from last season’s playoffs in the same round.
From the start of the game, Auburn High looked determined to deny history a chance at repeating itself.
Central took the opening kickoff to the 50-yard line. The Auburn High defense wasted no time getting after the Red Devils and quickly forced a punt. The Tigers then began their first drive on their own 17-yard line, and they swiftly moved the ball down the field. The Tigers finished off the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run from senior defensive end/fullback George Wright. Central responded immediately on its next drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass: a slant from quarterback Caleb Nix to receiver Jackson Meeks. With 0:57 remaining in the first quarter, the two teams were deadlocked at 7-7.
After trading punts on both teams’ next possessions, the Central defense forced the first turnover of the game when Auburn High quarterback Matthew Caldwell was intercepted on a heavily contested downfield throw. Central took over near its own 30-yard yard line and managed to inch the ball to other side of the field before the Auburn defense forced a fourth down. Central settled for a field goal and took its only lead of the game, 10-7, with just over four minutes left in the half.
The next two Auburn possessions would swing the game in their favor. To end the half, Caldwell became Auburn’s all-time single season passing touchdown record holder (19) with a 7-yard pass to Rogers who took a catch in the flat and ran it seven yards for the score. Auburn regained the lead at 14-10 and that where the score sat headed into halftime.
To open the second half, Auburn capitalized on a chance to stack back-to-back scores on the Red Devils. Before long, Auburn had the ball on the two-yard line and running back Amauri Hutchinson punched it in to open the game up and give Auburn the 21-10 lead.
Central made it clear they weren’t going lay down and accept defeat on its next possession. To this point in the game, Auburn had contained the typically explosive Central offense. But with just over five minutes left in the third quarter, Central ball carrier Gerald Davis broke a 65-yard rushing score to cut the Tigers’ lead back to four.
The play swung momentum in Central’s favor, but Auburn took the hope straight out of Central’s imagination on its next drive. The rushing duo of Rogers and Hutchinson moved the offense into scoring territory, and Hutchinson plunged into the end zone on a 1-yard score – his second of the night – to give Auburn the 28-17 lead with 2:06 remaining in the third quarter.
As the fourth quarter began, Auburn was in full control of the game until Caldwell was sacked and fumbled the ball near the 50-yard line, giving Central another lifeline in the game. There was no time for concession breaks on Friday as Auburn’s Powell Gordon strip-sacked Central quarterback Trey Miles on the next play to give the ball back to the Tigers.
The ensuing drive ended unceremoniously; it was a shame because Auburn successfully converted a fake punt on fourth down. Regardless, the Auburn defense showed their resolve again and forced Central to punt the ball right back to the Tiger offense. Rogers then killed off all hopes of a Central comeback with a 60-yard rushing touchdown that sent the Auburn faithful into a fever – the cure for which was a state championship berth. The Tigers had extended their lead to 35-17 with just over three minutes left and would see out the win from there.
The Auburn defense left the field making one final resounding statement as Sam Snyder intercepted the Central quarterback for the defense’s second turnover of the game.
The Tigers will now head to the AHSAA Super 7 State Championship Game for the first time under Head Coach Adam Winegarden and for the first time as a program since 2013. They face the defending champion Thompson Warriors, who have scored a team-record 575 points this season.