On Tuesday, Auburn coach Gene Chizik made it official — he is finally ready to turn to the man who critics have been wondering about most of this lost season.
Kiehl Frazier had his chance at quarterback and then Clint Moseley had his. Neither has had much success this season considering Auburn’s offense is the worst national, ranking 120th out of 120 FBS teams.
But last weekend, in the disaster that was Auburn’s loss to Texas A&M, there was a slight silver lining to the black cloud that has draped itself over the Auburn program. It was the play of freshman quarterback Jonathan Wallace, who had previously been used only as an occasional Wildcat quarterback. When Wallace came in during the first seven games it meant that a run, mostly by Wallace, was coming.
Against Texas A&M, offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler turned the true freshman loose to do more than run up the middle. Wallace responded by going 6-for-9 passing for 122 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed 13 times for 71 yards. Wallace’s two touchdowns came on two 27-yard touchdown passes, one to C.J. Uzomah and the other to Emory Blake.
“His play was very positive Saturday night,” said Chizik. “He made some things happen. He made some tough throws. There’s a couple throws in there that we’d like to have back. In the run game and in the passing game, I thought he was very productive for a young guy and the chances that he got.
“It was really neat on the sideline to watch as he made a couple of drives happen and go down the field. It sparked some energy and some passion into our bench on both sides of the ball.”
Admittedly, when Wallace was given his shot, the Aggies had already built a 49-7 lead and the Texas A&M defenders were probably not focused on playing their hardest. For a team that had been wandering in an offensive wasteland all season, Wallace’s play was like a drink of cold water for a man dying of thirst.
“I have said it pretty much weekly that Jonathan has been taking bits and pieces of the offense, and I think he has been digesting them for a young guy pretty well,” Chizik said immediately after the game. “He got in at a point in the game tonight where it was really, really good to see him do some things that really show flashes and signs of him maturing some. But again, you can’t throw everything at a young guy and expect him to be able to execute at all.”
Chizik has been under fire all season long about the quarterback situation, and one of the focal points of the criticism has been: why not give Wallace a chance to try and ignite the struggling Auburn offense if the two veterans continue to struggle?
“At that point and time in the game, it had calmed down a little bit with a lot of the blitzing and pressures and things of that nature. Not to take anything away from what Jonathan did because I am very proud of him, but when you are asking a guy to take on the whole game plan and all of the things that come with it, it is just not that simple,” Chizik said in trying to justify his hesitancy to make the quarterback switch earlier in the season.
He is making the switch Saturday, when the 1-7 Tigers host New Mexico State for Homecoming. Good choice for the freshman’s first collegiate start — the Aggies also own a 1-7 record.
“It’s going to be a little bit different,” said Chizik of Wallace’s start. “It’s different for a quarterback that’s starting the game and being in that role than it is for a guy to come in in what was somewhat of a limited role there for a while, and be that role player. The other thing that will be different being a starting quarterback is you have to deal with all the blitzes and the pressures. When they know you have a young guy, that’s what you’re going to get.
“He’s had significant improvement. This will be a little different for him because the playbook will expand some; not that he hasn’t been in the meetings and hearing it and seeing it, but now he has the opportunity to be the starter and have to execute all of those things,” he said “A little different dynamic, but I thought he really handled what we gave him in the game to do Saturday night very well.”
Chizik believes Wallace’s experience at CentralHigh SchoolinPhenix City has helped him prepare for this Saturday’s start.
“When you come from a competitive league in Alabama high school football, and you’re able to take your team and guide your team and lead your team to a lot of success, there’s something to that,” he said.
“When we recruited him, it was kind of an 11th-hour deal, as we all know, but we knew he was right down the road, and we needed his type of leadership and his type of work ethic to come in here, not knowing how exactly it would fit or where we would go, but there was a lot. When you talk about the mark of a man, there was a lot to him. That has been very evident to everybody around here since he got here.”
The move to Wallace as a starter is obviously an attempt to salvage whatever is left of this season, one that Chizik refuses to believe is a lost cause.
“We’ve got one month of football left. We’ve got four games left, and we have great opportunities out there. I can assure you that we are going to work every day to try to get a win this week and then try to get a win the next week and so on and so forth,” he said.
“But it’s big. The medicine and the remedy for being in a position like this is really only one thing — winning. I think it is very critical that we practice well and we prepare and we go out there and we get one Saturday.”