When Auburn called his number, TJ Finley answered.
With the Tigers down five points to the visiting Georgia State Panthers and starting quarterback Bo Nix struggling mightily, the coaching staff made the decision to pull Nix from the game in favor of Finley. Special teams had scored all 19 of Auburn's points, in the form of four Anders Carlson field goals and a blocked punt that was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
The Tigers were in dire straits, and at first the decision to send Finley into the game seemed to be the wrong one. After three drives, Finley had delivered as many points as the offense under Nix had. A promising drive was ended just outside the red zone by a Tank Bigsby fumble, and after the defense forced a punt, Georgia State's Michael Hayes sent a booming kick that rolled out of bounds at Auburn's 2-yard line. Just over three minutes remained in the game, and Auburn had 98 yards separating them from completing a comeback.
12 plays later, and the Tigers had rumbled their way to Georgia State's 10-yard line and had just one chance left on fourth down. The pass protection broke down almost immediately, and Finley had to scramble to keep the play alive. He dodged a would-be tackler and, before he could be brought down by another Panther, sent the ball sailing to the end zone.
Senior wide receiver Shedrick Jackson did the rest. It was the first touchdown of his Auburn career, and it gave the Tigers a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Following the game's high-energy finish, head coach Bryan Harsin stressed the need for both the team and the staff to improve in their preparation. He likened it to a class, saying, "We have finals every Saturday, not just quizzes."
But the X-factor, he said, was being able to find a way to win in the face of all the struggles of the day. Even with all the preparation in the world, "The one thing that you can never really replicate is how to find a way. You can only get that from the games."
And Auburn did. The offense had failed to find the end zone all afternoon, and with time dwindling down and the game on the line, Finley found a way to charge through the haze of the Panthers' pass rush and get the ball where only Jackson could grab it. He finished with nine completions on 16 attempts for 97 yards and the go-ahead score. Jackson's fourth and final catch of the night brought his total to 70 yards, the second-highest mark of his career.
Saturday's game likely didn't put many Auburn fans at ease following a bitter loss at Penn State. With the Tigers' non-conference slate complete, they'll round out the 2021 regular season with eight SEC games in nine weeks. It's a seismic increase in the level of competition, but a combination of preparation and grit may be enough to propel Auburn to some key wins in the conference, even if it's ugly. In the end, a win is a win.
"At the end of the day, it's not pretty..." said Harsin. "It's not pretty, it's not perfect, but you found a way."