AUBURN, Ala. — The month of October was a series of waiting games to see who would start at quarterback for Auburn and when it’d be announced.
No more. True freshman Jonathan Wallace wasn’t exactly Johnny Manziel in his first career start, but he did enough in Saturday’s 42-7 victory over New Mexico State to earn the confidence of his teammates and coaches.
Gene Chizik declared Sunday afternoon Wallace would start Auburn’s (2-7, 0-6 SEC) rivalry game Saturday when No. 5 Georgia (8-1, 6-1) comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“We’re playing some guys that have pro potential,” Wallace said. “They have some really good athletes. That’s what I like, though, having to raise my competition level. I have to compete a lot harder.”
Wallace officially seized the job last Tuesday from Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley, who were part of the recurring QB derby lasting until Thursday before games earlier in the month.
“Yesterday really unfolded very favorably for him, simply because at the beginning of the game he started very slow,” Chizik said after reviewing game tape. “What you look for in a young quarterback is when things don’t start off extremely fast, you want to see him respond. Jonathan was (able) to keep chopping wood, keep plugging along. And eventually he made some really good things happen.”
That he did, guiding scoring journeys of 89, 80, 96 and 77 yards — the four longest touchdown drives of Auburn’s entire season.
“The good news is that I thought as the game went on, he was never affected by the slow start,” Chizik said. “I felt like then he started hitting receivers and really doing a nice job with not losing confidence, keeping his poise and continuing to move the offense forward.”
A Central-Phenix City product who led Auburn’s wildcat package the previous five games, Wallace completed 9-of-16 passes for 164 yards, firing a 40-yard touchdown to Trovon Reed in the fourth quarter.
He had just 50 yards at halftime, with one interception deep down the field.
“It’ll be a great learning experience for him,” Chizik said. “There’s a couple of times that we had receivers that we could have hit for really explosive plays and were off the mark just a little bit on the throws.”
The gameplan called for “four or five” shots down the field, which were an early struggle for Wallace attempting to force into multiple coverages. But he bounced back, finding senior receiver Emory Blake along the sideline for a 29-yard catch — on third-and-7 from Auburn’s 7-yard-line — initially ruled incomplete but overturned upon review.
“That was one where that ball was probably put in the only place he could have put it and it be caught,” Chizik said. “It’s very big when he can make one of those throws coming off the goal line and give yourself some breathing room.”
Decision-making was Chizik’s primary scrutiny, admitting young quarterbacks are prone to growing pains in that area.
“That’s one of the biggest things coach (Scot) Loeffler has taught us, is being confident and being very decisive with your decisions,” Wallace said postgame Saturday. “If you have aggressive thinking, the outcome of the play will come out on a positive end.”
With Moseley’s status still uncertain with an ankle injury — he dressed out Saturday, but did not partake in warmups — Frazier is likely to remain Wallace’s backup.