AUBURN, Ala. – The odds were stacked against Auburn. Down 24-19, the offense had to go 98 yards in the final 3:23 to score a touchdown and win the game.
Quarterback T.J. Finley trotted out on the field. Many fans expected to see Finley at some point Saturday but not in this situation, not with the Tigers trailing. The LSU transfer had taken over for Bo Nix midway through the second half – with the hope of creating a spark on offense – and on what was just his fourth drive, it was touchdown or bust.
“Let’s have a 98-yard touchdown drive,” Finley told the rest of the offense.
“It was simple as that,” Finley said after the game. “I told everybody to do their job. They told me, ‘T.J. we got you.’ I told them, ‘I got y’all.’ It was as simple as that.”
“In that situation, it’s just about winning the game,” Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin said. “It’s not about what has happened in the game. It’s not about any of the other things that happened through all the quarters. It’s just, ‘Hey, let’s go make one play at a time. Let’s go move the ball down the field and let’s put ourselves in a position to win this game.'”
Freshmen running back Jarquez Hunter kickstarted the Tigers with an 18-yard run on the first play, giving Finley and the rest of the offense some room to operate.
Then, after back-to-back plays failed to gain, Finley connected with Kobe Hudson for 15 yards to convert a critical 3rd-and-11 to keep the drive going. Finley found Elijah Canion on the very next play for a pickup of eight yards, and then moved into Georgia State territory with a 16-yard run up the middle where he juked one of the linebackers.
“People don’t understand. Coming into the game like that – not starting and just waiting a whole half – just coming in and making plays like that, that’s hard to do,” wide receiver Shedrick Jackson said. “He took control of the offense. He was confident and poised. He was ready to go.”
Two plays later, after an incomplete pass, Finley scrambled away from pressure, rolled to his right and made a tough throw on the run to Canion who caught it for 12 yards and another Auburn first down. Then, he threaded the needle to John Samuel Shenker who was able to keep the ball off the turf and pick up 19 yards – the longest play of the drive.
“Shenker’s catch was huge,” Harsin said. “That was a big, explosive play.”
After a 1-yard run from Hunter, Auburn called a timeout. Time was no longer an issue. There was just over a minute to go, and the Tigers had moved it all the way to the 10-yard line. Still, they needed to get in the end zone and had three plays to do it.
The first play was an incomplete pass. On the second play, Finley missed an open Kobe Hudson in the corner of the end zone on what would have been the go-ahead score.
Auburn was down to its last chance, 4th-and-9 from 10 yards away.
Finley took the shotgun snap, and when he felt the pressure coming, he spun around to the left. He was met with two more Georgia State coming at him. He somehow escaped them, stepped up in the pocket and when he looked up, he saw Jackson coming open in the end zone. He flicked it toward Jackson who leapt and made the grab. Touchdown.
“It’s fourth down and goal, you have to make a play,” Harsin said. “You’ve got to give your receivers an opportunity to make something happen, and he did.”
“It was a broken play,” Jackson said. “T.J. did a great job scrambling and keeping his eyes down the field and finding somebody to put the ball to. When I saw him, I just knew he was going to throw it, and I had to make a play.”
“I missed a wide-open touchdown on third down – which I will get that fixed tomorrow – but my mindset was just ‘next play,'” Finley said. “I saw some pressure coming from the left side. I’ve never done this before but I spun out of the tackle, and Shed did an amazing job coming open and catching the ball and coming down with it.”
Led by Finley, Auburn went 98 yards on 13 plays. It took only 2:38, which allowed time for Smoke Monday to add the exclamation point with a pick-six in the final minute, but it was a drive that in many ways changed the course of the season for the Tigers.
Now it’s on to SEC play for Auburn and a road game at LSU on Saturday night.