Football By: Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. – With Owen Pappoe sidelined Saturday vs. Georgia State and Zakoby McClain out until the second half, Auburn’s defensive leaders knew the rest of the defenders would need to try to offset the loss of their production.
“I felt like I had to do my job,” said Colby Wooden, who made consecutive tackles on the game’s first two plays to help force a three-and-out en route to a career high eight tackles. “The plays are going to come to me.”
“I wanted to play well, especially with those guys out,” said Wooten, a senior captain. “It was an opportunity for us to step up. I’m proud of how everybody came out in the second half, especially defensively. Once we get 11 cleats in the ground and everybody doing their job, we’re pretty tough to beat.”
“He really kept us in the game as a defensive leader,” senior safety Smoke Monday said of Wooten. “One of those guys who keeps fighting. We just kept fighting, and that’s what we did in the second half.”
Auburn shut out Georgia State in the second half, getting three-and-outs on four consecutive possessions to set the stage for the Tigers’ comeback.
Auburn’s second-half defensive surge coincided with McClain’s return. The senior linebacker, who missed the first half for a targeting penalty in the Penn State game that NCAA coordinator of officials Steve Shaw later said was an incorrect ruling, made four tackles.
“Nothing didn’t really change, we just had to do our job,” Monday said. “It was a great plus that I got my evil twin, Zakoby, back. Ricochet Rabbit, he’s going to do his job. He’s going to play hard, he’s going to play physical.”
“He’s the energizer bunny,” Wooden said of McClain. “Flies around, makes plays. It was important to us and vital that he came back and gave us the spark that we needed.”
For the third time in his Auburn career, Smoke Monday returned an interception for a touchdown. After Auburn took the lead in the final minute on T.J. Finley’s fourth down touchdown pass to Shedrick Jackson, and Finley’s 2-point conversion pass to Kobe Hudson, Monday picked off GSU’s pass and returned it 36 yards to clinch the win.
“I consider myself a ballhawk,” said Monday, who added four tackles including a tackle for loss, and a pass breakup. “I’ve got a knack for the ball. Doing my job, listening to my coaches.”
Video study revealed Georgia State’s tendency to attack the seams in its two-minute offense.
“He (defensive coordinator Derek Mason) gave the right call and I just read my keys, and just picked the ball off,” said Monday, whose previous pick-sixes came in the 2019 Iron Bowl and in 2020 vs. Tennessee.
SHADES OF 2010: NEWTON SHINES FOR AUBURN
Eleven years ago, Caylin Newton watched as his older brother Cam became an Auburn legend, winning the 2010 Heisman Trophy while leading the Tigers to the national championship.
On Homecoming, it was Caylin’s turn to hear the cheers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. With the Tigers trailing 24-12 late in the third quarter, Newton blocked Georgia State’s punt, which Auburn’s Barton Lester recovered in the end zone for a touchdown that made it a one-possession game.
“It means the world to me,” Newton said. “I didn’t know if they were going to block down or block out. I didn’t know if the shield was going to recognize me or peel off for me. I just went full speed and expected to make a play and I made the play.
“It was a surreal moment. It was definitely the best moment of my Auburn career, and I’m grateful for it.”
For Lester, it was the second time he recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown, having done so last season vs. Arkansas.