BY WIL CREWS
The Auburn High Tigers emerged victorious, 51-29, over the Opelika Bulldogs Friday night at Duck-Samford Stadium in Auburn.
“We can’t be upset about this one very long, because the way this region sets up, if we can get in the playoffs, then we are probably going to see these guys again,” said Opelika head coach Eric Speakman postgame.
Auburn’s 51 points were the most it has scored in a rivalry game since the very first meeting in 1917, and deadlocked the series all-time at 47-47-3.
For Opelika, the loss means the Bulldogs have dropped three straight games since starting the season 4-0.
“I thought the kids played hard in certain areas, but again, it’s these little mistakes,” Speakman said. “We said that during this four-game stretch, if we make those [mistakes], we won’t win many of these games.”
Opelika received the ball to begin the game and immediately marked its statement of intent, capping a 75-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown rush from junior quarterback Roman Gagliano.
Buoyed by the frantic enthusiasm of the home crown, Auburn responded on the next drive with a 40-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Clyde Pittman to senior receiver Ean Nation. The ensuing extra-point attempt was no good as Opelika clung to its 7-6 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Tigers took their first lead of the night with 9:49 in the second quarter when senior running back D.V. Williams carried the ball 15 yards through the thick of the Opelika defense for a touchdown.
Trailing 13-7, Opelika continued to rely on the arm of Gagliano as the stout Auburn defensive front seven limited the Bulldogs’ run game. Gagliano returned Opelika’s lead when he found senior receiver Bryce Speakman with no defender within 15 yards of him for a 21-yard passing touchdown mid-way through the second period.
The Opelika defense then forced a quick punt on Auburn’s next drive, resulting in its best field position of the night. Gagliano took the next snap and launched a pass behind the Auburn secondary as he found his receiver for a 42-yard gain. Inside the red zone, Opelika needed just two more plays for senior Caden Cooper to take a wildcat formation snap and scamper into the endzone from 7 yards out. With a successful extra point, Opelika led the Tigers 21-13 with 4:02 remaining in the first half.
On the final drive of the half, Opelika appeared to have limited Auburn to a field goal as the Tigers lined up for a kick on a fourth-and-10 with 18 seconds remaining. Unbeknownst to Opelika, Auburn High left an uncovered man — Pittman — along the sideline, and faked the kick to find him wide open in the end zone for 20-yard touchdown. Auburn converted the ensuing two-point-conversion to tie the game at 21 at the break.
While there was little to split the two teams in the first half Friday night, Auburn High took control of the contest in the final two periods, outscoring the Dawgs 30-8.
Auburn took the lead and never looked back on its first drive of the third quarter when Pittman broke contain on a dropback, broke three Opelika tackles and clattered into the end zone on a 19-yard rushing score.
Opelika tried a little trickery of its own on the next drive, as the Bulldogs attempted a fake amid Auburn running its special teams units onto the field. The snap went over everyone’s head, however, and bounced into the end zone where Gagliano fell on the ball to give up a safety. The Tigers would follow that up with a stop, and another scoring drive to take a commanding, 37-21 lead over the Bulldogs.
“We don’t cover the guy on the fake field goal to end the half, and then we snap it over our head when we have them on a trick play,” Speakman said as he lamented his team’s mistakes. “It was just the little things again that we will continue to work on.”
The mishaps clearly deflated the Bulldogs’ sideline as Opelika’s next and final score didn’t come until there was 5:09 in the fourth quarter. Sophomore defensive end Malik Autry ripped the ball away from an Auburn ball carrier and ran 20 yards in the other direction for the touchdown. The Tigers would add one final score to close out the win and remain undefeated.
Opelika returns home Friday, Oct. 7, for its Homecoming Week game against region foe Smiths Station (1-5, R1-3).
“Hopefully we will get better at it,” Speakman said. “We still have three games ahead of us in the region, and we will come back and start getting ready for Smiths.”