ARLINGTON, Texas — JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow couldn’t believe what he just heard.
Whitlow was hungry for the ball. He communicated that to his true freshman quarterback, Bo Nix, as Auburn’s final drive of the night began.
“I was like, “Bo. Give me the ball, Bo,” Whitlow said postgame. “I just need to get the first down. Give me the ball.”
So, when Nix made a read Whitlow didn’t agree with, the sophomore tailback was unhappy.
He complained to Nix: “Why didn’t you give me the ball, man?”
Nix, who was facing a critical fourth-and-3 just shy of midfield, down a point, time winding down in his first college football game against the No. 11 team in the nation, was making sure not to stress out.
He told Whitlow to “just chill.”
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“I was like, ‘How in the world are you calm? It’s fourth-and-3 and you’re calm,’ Whitlow said.
On the fourth-down play, Nix faked an end-around to Eli Stove and rolled to his right. Whitlow was flaring out for a pass just past the line to gain, but a pair of Ducks defenders were smothering him. Nix took off, diving for the first down. After an official review with the chain gang, it was confirmed: Nix picked up the first down, when failing to do so would have all but ended the game and spelled an Auburn loss.
Whitlow stood corrected.
“I’m like, OK. Alright. I’m sorry,” Whitlow said. “I’m sorry. ... I wasn’t mad. I went to him and told him, ‘You’re it. You’re it. You got it.’
That attitude told the story of Bo Nix on Saturday night during No. 16 Auburn’s 27-21 win over Oregon in the rematch of the 2010 national title game. Before the jubilation — before his teammates dog-piled him for his game-winning touchdown pass to Seth Williams — Nix struggled. He threw a pair of interceptions. He was, at times, helpless on third downs. His quarterback rating was, at one juncture, 100 points lower than that of Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert.
But he never got frustrated. After the interceptions, Whitlow said Nix came over to the sidelines and immediately went to the intended receivers and communicated that the play was his fault — and that he would do better next time.
“I started off a little slow,” Nix said. “But my teammates had my back, like they told me they would, and sure enough, we finished it out.”
Nix finished 13-of-31 for 177 yards and two touchdowns to go with his two interceptions. He made some wow throws, like Auburn said he’d been doing all preseason, and he made some errant decisions — as a true freshman is expected to do.
In fact, Auburn prepared knowing Nix would take his lumps in his first career game. That didn’t change the team’s confidence level in him — he was named the starting quarterback for a reason — but it did mean Auburn was going to account for some freshman mistakes here and there in the monster atmosphere that comes with playing the game of the week in a monster NFL stadium.
“We never doubted him,” Williams said. “We knew he was going to start off kinda sluggish with his first game, but we knew he was going to come through.”
Nix’s head coach noticed that maturity, too.
“I told him before the game, ‘Hey, man, there's going to be mistakes out there,’” Gus Malzahn said. “‘Hey, you just keep plugging, man, don't flinch. Just keep battling.’ And that's what he did.”
Malzahn’s whole approach with Nix in Dallas differed from his past methods with quarterbacks. For starters, when Auburn was completing its stadium walk-through, Malzahn hung with the quarterbacks and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham throughout. In the past, the head coach let them do their own thing.
And with Malzahn back to calling plays, he was partially responsible for each of Nix’s shortcomings or successes on a given play. Whether a series resulted in a score, a turnover or a three-and-out, Malzahn always met Nix halfway on the QB’s walk back to the sideline. He put his hand on Nix’s helmet and talked the freshman through things. Nix never hung his head.
“He didn't get down,” Malzahn said. “He's a real positive guy. And he's positive with his teammates. He was positive with me.”
The exchanges between quarterback and coach were mostly reserved — not overly animated — as Malzahn attempted to keep things as relaxing and stress-free as possible for Nix. All bets were off in that department after Nix’s game-winner. Nix was fired up.
“He came in with the game on the line — it tells a lot,” Whitlow said of Nix. “He loves the game; he loves Auburn. He’s willing to do whatever. Most quarterbacks would go in there and freeze up. … It’s just amazing to see a true freshman come in and play like he’s been doing it.”
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