With just over two minutes left in the game, Oregon was tasked with stopping an Auburn offense that had slowly but surely built momentum for itself throughout the second half from getting into field goal range. It wasn’t the easiest of challenges, as the Tigers returned a punt to their 40-yard line, but the Ducks defense (on paper) had something the man captaining the opposition didn’t: experience—the trait a certain breed of College Football Knower loves to salivate over the most.
Snapping the ball for Auburn was true freshman quarterback Bo Nix, who had only completed just 9-of-25 passes up to this point in the game. You’d be forgiven if you looked at the matchup—on one side of the ball, the first true freshman to start a Tigers season opener since 1946; on the other, a stout top-15 defense—and assumed Nix would be the half that came up short in the end. However, Oregon had provided an important wrinkle that helped tilt the scales in its opponent’s favor through an inability to put Auburn away much sooner.
There were signs of this problem early on. On the Ducks’ second drive of the game, top NFL prospect Justin Herbert almost put his team up two touchdowns, only for his pass to bounce off the shoulder of his receiver in the end zone. To make matters worse, the team couldn’t even go up two scores after Oregon kicker Dustin Lewis missed the ensuing chip-shot 20-yarder. The Ducks did eventually get that second touchdown—on an incredible throw and catch— but then they blew a chance to go up 21-3. This time, a great punt return put Herbert and his offense just nine yards from the end zone, but the special teams effort was negated when the quarterback fumbled the ball on the first play of the drive and allowed an 83-yard return the other way. Hell, the first touchdown the defense gave up was a missed opportunity in the sense that they failed to show some semblance of competence.
But the most noteworthy wasted opportunity happened with about 5 1/2 minutes in the game. Herbert completed a four-yard pass to set up the Ducks in a huge fourth-and-1 situation on Auburn’s 41, but because he clashed knees with a blitzing defender and went down, he had to sit out for one play. This especially could not have come at a worse time as Oregon had just allowed the Tigers to cut the lead to one, following a 69 yard drive that ended with a desperation dive off a QB sneak from Nix. The situation had a very do-or-die feel to it, so coach Mario Cristobal did what he could to try and remedy the situation. The Ducks coach called two(!) timeouts in the hopes that officials would allow Herbert back in, but it was to no avail. Cristobal was left to scramble with a backup quarterback and try to make things work. Things did not work.
For what it’s worth, Oregon’s defense came up big in one way or another on most of those blown opportunities. The drive following the first two misses only resulted in field goals, and Auburn went three-and-out on the drive following the big fourth down stop. But this is where the numbers come in to show just how much the Ducks let the Tigers stay alive. CBS Sports’ Tom Fornelli pointed out that after gaining 176 yards of offense in the first quarter, Oregon only managed 156 in the last three. After scoring two touchdowns in their first three possessions, the Ducks only reached the end zone once more in their final 11. Rodger Sherman from the the Ringer noted that Herbert’s passing yards and yards per completion both dropped in the second half—122 vs. 120, and 12.0 vs. 6.7, respectively—and singled out one possession where three straight completed passes only led to a fourth-and-1, which Oregon punted on.
With all of that in mind, it’s no wonder that a struggling true freshman was able to compose himself just enough to put his team in a position for this incredible comeback. The true heroics began on a fourth-and-3, when the Ducks’ defense had a bootleg well-covered, but were unable to close in on Nix in time as he just barely made it over the 50-yard line to get the clutch first down. Nix then completed a pass that, in any other circumstance, would have ended his throwing duties for the day. A 13-yard dot to receiver Seth Williams put the Tigers in the right field position to kick the game-winning field goal. But Nix, Williams and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn saw an opening to really go for the kill and called one more passing play. Nix, whose in-pocket maturity seemed to grow to near-professional levels throughout this drive, hit Williams once again, this time for a 26-yard touchdown.
Even with this emphatic win under his belt, it should be probably be mentioned that Nix still has a ways to go in terms of his development. He had his fair share of poor throws, with a couple leading to interceptions, and not-so-smart decisions that tend to come standard with players who make the jump from high school superstar to SEC starter—there were a couple plays where he seemed to forget he wasn’t only playing against teenagers anymore. But what he has shown is that if you give him a lane to lead Auburn to victory through, he’ll sure as hell take it.