AUBURN — Bo Nix was already a big name in Auburn. The starting quarterback usually is, and he’s not just any true freshman — he’s the five-star, two-time state championship-winning, Mr. Football-earning son of former Tigers quarterback Patrick Nix.
But with one throw Saturday, he became a national name, too.
Nearly seven million people tuned in to the ABC broadcast of Auburn’s 27-21 victory over Oregon, and you have to assume that at least most of them stuck around to watch the young Nix pencil himself forever into Auburn lore with his game-winning 26-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Seth Williams in the closing seconds.
Nix was interviewed on the field by ESPN’s Maria Taylor after the game. On Monday, he was named the SEC Freshman of the Week. That night, he appeared on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt.
Nix, of course, is not the type of player who would let any of that go to his head. The game-winning touchdown pass made him a hero, but even with it, the final numbers from his debut are not particularly noteworthy — 13 of 31 passing (41.9 percent), 177 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, seven carries, 42 yards, one sack.
“There’s a lot of things that he knows that he can be better than he was the first game,” head coach Gus Malzahn said in advance of Saturday’s home opener against Tulane (6:30 p.m., ESPN2). “We all expect improvement.”
The good news, for both Nix and the Tigers, is that it’s easy to see where some of those improvements might come from. For starters, of those two turnovers, only one looked like a poor decision. That would be the first one, where Nix was scrambling to his left and tried to throw back across his body to Williams.
The second, intended for Sal Cannella, looked like it might have just been a miscommunication — the receiver was running deep, and the quarterback threw the ball back shoulder.
Aside from that first interception, it didn’t appear that Nix took any unnecessary risks with the football, which was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham's challenge to him. In fact, of the freshman’s 18 incompletions, six were pure throwaways where he simply got the ball out of bounds or into the turf to avoid a loss on the play.
“That’s what mature quarterbacks do,” senior right guard Mike Horton said. “They know when to throw the ball away. They know when to try to run for it. He did his job today.”
There are ways the rest of Auburn’s offense can help its quarterback going forward, too. Nix left the pocket on 16 of his 35 dropbacks Saturday — seven because of designed bootlegs and nine because pressure from Oregon’s defense forced him to. That led the Tigers to max protect more, which gave Nix fewer targets downfield when he did leave the pocket.
Nix finished the game 3 of 12 (25 percent) for 30 yards and one of those two interceptions on throws made outside the pocket. He also turned two designed bootlegs into carries of 6 and 3 yards — the latter being his fourth-down plunge that kept the game-winning drive alive — escaped up the middle for a 13-yard carry and was sacked once.
“They were presenting a lot of different looks, showing some things they hadn't showed,” Malzahn said of Oregon’s defense. “They were moving a lot and they were mixing things up. Hats off to their coaches. I think they had a really good plan.”
Obviously, those numbers outside the pocket leave a lot to be desired. What they do mean, though, is that Nix’s performance from the pocket was actually pretty solid for a first collegiate start — 10 of 19 (52.6 percent), 147 yards and two touchdowns to just one interception.
Nix overthrew three deep balls in the direction of Williams and Will Hastings (a fourth might have been caught if not for a defensive pass interference penalty) and underthrew a pair of back-shoulder throws toward Cannella and Williams during the final drive, but he also made a number of throws that showed you why he was named Auburn’s starting quarterback, such as a perfect 38-yard deep ball to Hastings in the first quarter — the first completion of the quarterback’s career — and the 13-yard out to Williams in the fourth that set up the game-winning touchdown pass.
His most impressive passes, obviously, were the two touchdowns. But they were each impressive in their own way.
The first, which came during the latter half of the third quarter, was simply a great heads-up play. Oregon’s defense was scrambling after Eli Stove’s 36-yard run down to the 11-yard line on a sweep, and in the commotion, linebacker Troy Dye ran off, leaving only 10 men on the field. Nix saw that cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. was going to be late getting over to the uncovered Stove, so he alertly snapped the ball and threw it out to the junior wide receiver, who broke a tackle and ran into the end zone.
“I didn’t even get the play. I was still waiting on the play and he just looked at me. He snapped and he just threw it. It was crazy,” Stove said. “It kinda surprised me at the moment, but then again he’s a smart quarterback, so I know it’s just something he does.”
The second touchdown play was impressive because of the faith Malzahn had in his rookie quarterback to call it despite the fact that there were only 16 seconds remaining and Auburn was already in position to allow Anders Carlson to attempt what would have been a 43-yard game-winning field goal.
Nix had four targets on the play — Williams and Cannella deep down the field, and Stove and John Samuel Shenker on short out routes. The quarterback had two options — throw to Williams or Cannella at the goal line, or Stove or Shenker by the boundary. The Tigers had no timeouts left, so a throw in bounds short of the first-down marker (it was first-and-10) that would have kept the clock running was not an option.
The play was executed almost flawlessly. There was good protection in the pocket, thanks in part to running back JaTarvious Whitlow picking up a free blitzer. Williams found a hole in Oregon’s defense after Graham bit on the short out Stove was running. Nix put the ball exactly where he needed to so the 6-foot-3 sophomore receiver could go up and get it over safety Verone McKinley III. The only imperfection was a slight juggle of the football.
“Seth actually told me that he lost track of the ball while it was up in the air, which is kind of scary. He lost it in the light or something,” Nix said on SportsCenter. “But thank goodness he caught it.”