AUBURN — It wasn't until Friday that Auburn knew its No. 2 running back, Shaun Shivers, would be out against Alabama State. That's when freshman Jarquez Hunter was told he would get more opportunities to back up Tank Bigsby after his unheralded college debut against Akron, when he ran for 110 yards on nine carries and a touchdown.
Understandably, he had no clue what his encore had in store: 147 yards on eight carries, not to mention a broken 85-year-old school record.
"I never thought I’d have back-to-back 100-yard games," Hunter said.
The moment that put him over the top presented itself late in the third quarter of a game that was effectively over: Auburn led 48-0, but an Alabama State punt had pinned the Tigers at their own 6.
If the punt had trickled into the end zone for a touchback, Hunter wouldn't now be able to claim the longest run in Auburn football history, a 94-yard touchdown scamper that firmly announced him as the Tigers' greatest freshman asset, if that wasn't already clear.
It also announced that Auburn's supposed elite backfield duo is actually a trio, and yes, it's becoming one of the best running back rooms in college football.
Bigsby, Shivers and Hunter have all made a mark in Auburn's first two games. The almost-sarcastic caveat at this point is that, sure, it was Akron and Alabama State, BUT this or that was still promising. Both ideas can be true. There's a lot to prove as the schedule heats up. Penn State's defense is one of the best in the country, and Bigsby and Hunter are both inexperienced with road environments. This weekend will be the first full crowd either has faced on the road in their college careers.
But the opponent shouldn't take away from the talent and fearlessness both have displayed in Auburn's first two games. Bigsby was dragging defenders behind him on every run Saturday. Hunter makes the most of every moment. He's making a case that he belongs on the field during SEC play.
“Jarquez just keeps surprising people," quarterback Bo Nix said. "He’s very fast — more explosive than people give him credit for. Obviously, Tank, he just does what he does. ... I’m looking forward to seeing those guys continue to build upon each other and develop, because both of them are still young. We think Tank’s a veteran, but he’s a sophomore. I think he’s just 19 years old, so he’s still just a little kid."
Bigsby's best play against Alabama State might have been one that didn't count. He stiff-armed the soul out of a linebacker and bulldozed 23 yards through defenders. A penalty brought it back, but holding doesn't make the broken tackles any less real.
Shivers' status for this weekend is unclear because coach Bryan Harsin didn't provide a reason for his absence Saturday. He didn't say it was injury. If it's a COVID-19-related situation, then Auburn's policy is a minimum 10-day isolation period. It's not worth speculating, but if Shivers were to be out against Penn State, Harsin has to feel good right now about his running back status anyway. The No. 3 option makes a darn good No. 2. Harsin handed Hunter the game ball after the Alabama State win.
"What I love about Jarquez is, even in that moment in the locker room, he appreciates it," Harsin said. "He's a pretty humble guy. ... He's going to keep getting better. I think these two games he's had a chance to play in gave him really valuable experience, and then we'll see how this week goes leading into the Penn State game."
In the meantime, the 94-yard touchdown run is worth revisiting. Hunter remembered how it played out in his head clearly after the game.
"At first I was going to the right," he said. But he noticed the hole on the left and an opportunity for a cutback. "And then I didn’t know if anybody was close to me, so I just ran as fast as I can."
"I knew this," Harsin said. "When he popped on that one, no one was going to catch him."
When Hunter reached the end zone, he didn't feel tired: "I just had a lot of adrenaline." He had been told this would be his last drive of the game. He wanted to make the most of it.
He did so by making Auburn history. The old record had been a 92-yard run in 1936.
"I didn’t know until everybody started telling me I broke it," Hunter said.
If precedent stands, it won't be broken again for decades. Not a bad legacy to leave in your second college football game.