AUBURN -- Jonathan Wallace slept well Friday night.
The eve before his first collegiate start, the true freshman said he had no trouble resting before Auburn's 11 a.m. contest against the New Mexico State Aggies.
"Sometimes, you have to let things handle themselves," Wallace said. "Waking up this morning, I took it slow. Gradually, as we got closer to the game, I really started to focus in."
The calm and collected nature that Wallace usually carries was not evident during Auburn's first offensive drive. The Tigers began the series from their own 14 yard-line, but after a fumble by sophomore running back Tre Mason followed by two consecutive one-yard losses, Auburn punted from its own 7 facing a 4th-and-17.
The first quarter offered little improvement for offense. Wallace took a huge hit on the second drive of the game, a second three-and-out, before throwing an interception on a deep post to freshman wide receiver Sammie Coates. But the freshman didn't allow himself or the offense to get rattled after a scoreless first quarter.
"You really find out what kind of team you are when things aren't going so well," Wallace said. "We were able to dig ourselves out of that hole today, and that was big for us. Despite the adversity, we continued to press on."
The Tigers pressed on -- primarily relying on the ground attack of Mason and Onterio McCalebb the rest of the game. Auburn scored 21 third quarter points to give Wallace a win in his debut, his first start since losing in the semifinals of the Class 6A state playoffs last fall. Wallace's final stats weren't eye-popping: 9-for-16 for 164 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but head coach Gene Chizik remained proud of the freshman.
"When you're the starting quarterback, that's a whole different entity compared to coming in as a role player," Chizik said. "Overall, I couldn't be more pleased with how he managed the team, directed the team and made plays in critical times in the game. Just looking at it from the naked eye, I'm very proud of him."
Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler said knew there would be mistakes made today. He knew the Aggies' defense would load the box and challenge the young quarterback to beat them. In response, Auburn's offense took several shots down the field to attack the heavy fronts.
Though Wallace missed on several opportunities, Loeffler said Wallace's preparation skills and self-confidence will allow him to correct those mistakes before facing Georgia next week.
"He knows we didn't play a complete game, but he's going to be in the grind ready to go next week, " Loeffler said. "He's a grinder, and he will only keep getting better and better.
Wallace has primarily been used as a Wildcat quarterback since his debut against LSU in the fourth game of the season, save his second-half relief effort last week against Texas A&M. Loeffler said the shift from a situational running quarterback to having full rein of the offense is a dramatic change for a freshman.
"He walked in there as a rookie, and he was nervous," Loeffler said. "There's a difference between walking in getting a few reps here and there and being 'the guy.' He was nervous and struggled with some things early that he normally doesn't, but he was able to get a feel for the game and overcome."
Earlier in the season, Wallace was watching quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley take the physical reps with the first team. When it was his turn to step in with the first-team offense this week, Wallace was prepared.
"Even when you're not getting the physical reps during the week, you have to focus in and get the mental reps," Wallace said. "Mentally, I was always tied in because you never know what's going to happen in a game. Every chance that you get to prepare, you have to take advantage of it."
After a winless October, Wallace gave the Tigers their first win after five consecutive losses. That may allow Auburn fans to sleep as well as Wallace.