Well, well, well, I hope y’all survived elimination Saturday. You know, the Saturday that separates the true Auburn fans from the ones who just haven’t had a heart attack this year and have forgotten what it feels like.
The Tigers beat Georgia State today 34-24 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but the final score is hardly the storyline here.
- Auburn got down 24-12 at halftime after allowing 219 rushing yards in the first half (9.1 yards per carry) and getting gashed by a former walk-on named Tucker Gregg (his first and last names are backward!).
- Meanwhile, Bo Nix seemed shellshocked against a far inferior team and kept throwing off of his back foot and sailing passes to open receivers. Auburn’s offense bogged down every time it maid headway, and settled for 4 Anders Carlson field goals.
- Zakoby McClain’s return from the targeting call last week sparked the defense, and they didn’t allow a point after halftime, only giving up 85 total yards in the second half.
- Bo Nix got benched near the end of the third quarter, and TJ Finley led a 98-yard scoring drive for the win in the final three minutes. Finley hit Shedrick Jackson on a fourth down touchdown pass with :45 left to play, and then converted the two-point conversion.
- Smoke Monday made the final score academic with a pick six as the Panthers drove for a potential game-tying field goal or game-winning touchdown.
It was hardly the most relaxing Homecoming game you could imagine, and it even turned the page in the 2021 Tigers’ biography to the page marked “Quarterback Controversy”. While Shedrick Jackson, who caught the game-winning touchdown, and others are being diplomatic, the rest of us decidedly are not.
Shedrick Jackson on T.J. Finley and Bo Nix: "We're confident in both those guys. I'm behind either one of them."— Christian Clemente (@CClemente__) September 26, 2021
Caylin Newton on TJ Finley: "I was excited when he came here. I think he took on the role here when he first got here. He supported Bo, and I think he did everything right ... He came in, took his time and led us to victory"— Jordan D. Hill (@JordanDavisHill) September 26, 2021
It remains to be seen if there’s any sort of permanent decision, and we may not know exactly who Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo choose to lead the offense in Baton Rouge until whoever it is trots out next Saturday. However, the team seemed energized when Finley came in, and leading the Tigers into Death Valley against his former team would be poetic as hell.
If you wanted an indication of how this game would go based on the first defensive series, you wouldn’t get it. Auburn forced a quick three-and-out, but the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain and snagged just one first down before punting. Georgia State took the ball and began to hit Auburn’s interior defense with inside zone running plays, and put together a 6-play, 58-yard drive for the game’s first points. Noel Ruiz hit a 32-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead with 8:34 to go in the opening quarter.
Nehemiah Pritchett returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards to put Auburn in the Panthers’ end right away, but Auburn moved just 5 yards on the drive and had to settle for the first of Anders Carlson’s four field goals to tie the game at 3-3. Auburn would add another field goal and take the lead on the next possession, a 10-play, 65-yard effort to go up 6-3.
Georgia State clearly saw something that was working, as the next drive had the Panthers mow right down the field, going 75 yards in 15 plays and going ahead with a Darren Grainger touchdown to a wide open Jamari Thrash. Auburn responded with another field goal drive, the third straight make from Anders Carlson, to cut the lead to 10-9 in favor of GSU, but the defense wasn’t holding up its end of the bargain.
Georgia State went right back down the field, adding to their lead on another Grainger touchdown pass to Roger Carter from 7 yards out, and then after another Carlson field goal, former walk-on Tucker Gregg burst through the Tiger defense to score from 50 yards out. Suddenly it was 24-12 with nothing going right for Auburn.
As the third quarter began, the Auburn offense needed to find some momentum to turn the tide of the game back in the Tigers’ favor. It didn’t happen as the Nix-led offense went just 5 yards for a three-and-out. Thankfully, Zakoby McClain’s return on defense energized the unit, and they forced a punt on GSU’s opening drive.
After another trade of punts, Georgia State was backed up in their own end, and the Tigers got their first highlight of the day.
Caylin Newton was the one who stormed in and blocked the punt, with Barton Lester recovering in the end zone as Auburn cut the lead to 24-19 with a few minutes remaining in the third quarter.
After another three-and-out for Georgia State (the Auburn defense forced four straight in the second half), it was time for a change on offense. Bo Nix sat down on the bench and TJ Finley came in for his first serious action of the season. His first drive didn’t amount to anything, netting 37 yards and resulting in a punt, but he provided an excitement to the team and the crowd that hadn’t been present before.
Auburn got the ball with 9:41 to go in the game, and they started to move again, but the drive stalled on a Tank Bigsby fumble that gave Georgia State possession at their own 25 after the Tigers had moved into scoring position. The defense stood tall again, though, and forced another punt. This time, Georgia State was able to get a fortunate bounce and pin Auburn at the 2-yard line with 3:23 to play. The Tigers faced 98 yards to find the end zone and the victory, and they’d have to do it with Finley under center instead of Nix.
Jarquez Hunter got the drive started with an 18-yard burst around right end, and then Finley hit Kobe Hudson for 15 yards later on to move the drive out to the Auburn 34. After a 16-yard scramble and a 12 yard strike to Elijah Canion, Auburn sat at the Georgia State 30. Finley rifled a pass on 1st down to John Samuel Shenker, who appeared to let the ball hit the ground. Somehow, replay wasn’t able to overturn the call on the field and Auburn gained another 19 yards and had first down at the 11 with 1:02 left.
On third down, Finley just led Hudson a little too far in the corner of the end zone, and the Tigers faced one final play to avoid the upset. Finley took the snap, shrugged off two defenders, and threw while stepping upfield, hitting Shedrick Jackson in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 45 seconds remaining. Leading just 25-24, they went for the two-point conversion, and Finley hit Hudson for the score on a rollout play.
On Georgia State’s second play on the ensuing drive, Grainger was picked off by Smoke Monday, who returned it for a touchdown to pad the final margin and make it a little more palatable.
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Zakoby McClain (LB) - It’s not difficult to see his impact. Auburn allowed 24 first half points, including 219 rushing yards, and didn’t have any answer for what Georgia State wanted to do. After McClain reentered the game, the Panthers didn’t score and gained just 85 total yards. While you struggle to see what everyone was doing without him on the field, the excitement he brought to the defense was real and it worked for Auburn in the second half. He only finished with 4 tackles and a TFL, but he was still involved in almost every play and let the scoreless charge.
TJ Finley (QB) - 9-16, 97 yards, 1 TD; 3 carries, 15 yards - Finley spelled Bo Nix after the latter kept making the same mistakes he’d made for three years. While his stat line won’t dazzle you, he got the team energized in the same way that McClain did, and led a 98-yard touchdown drive in the final three minutes. That’s not something that happens every day. He showed a good amount of elusive ability, scrambling away for conversions on several occasions, and he was a good bit more accurate than Nix late in the game. We’ll see if he gets the nod at his old stomping grounds next weekend.
Ha! Auburn travels to Baton Rouge for the start of SEC play against LSU. Kickoff comes next Saturday night at 8 pm CST/9 pm EST.