(AP) AUBURN, Ala. — Jonathan Wallace's first play as Auburn's starting quarterback was a botched handoff. The Tigers lost 5 yards on the opening two possessions and their first decent drive ended with an interception.
The freshman rebounded nicely to lead Auburn (2-7, 0-6 Southeastern Conference) to a 42-7 victory over New Mexico State on Saturday. He knows he can't afford such a jittery start when No. 5 Georgia visits.
"We can't do that (this) week," Wallace said after the game. "We have to really, really work this week on just being able to come out hot, and come out already on fire."
Things got much better for him. Coach Gene Chizik said Sunday that Wallace showed resiliency and enough positives to earn the start against the Bulldogs (7-1, 6-1).
"It'll be a great learning experience for him," Chizik said of Wallace's starting debut. "There's a couple of times that we had receivers that we could have hit for really explosive plays and were off the mark just a little bit on the throws.
"The good news is that I thought as the game went on he was never affected by the slow start. I felt like then he started hitting receivers and really doing a nice job with not losing focus, keeping his poise and continuing to move the offense forward."
With Wallace running the show, the Tigers managed to get an inconsistent running game going and mostly avoid the kind of negative plays that have plagued them much of the season.
He went 9-of-16 passing for 164 yards with a touchdown and an interception when he tried to force a ball into double coverage near the goal line. Wallace also managed to avoid adding to Auburn's season total of 29 sacks against the Aggies by making quicker decisions and avoiding the rush.
That was against a defense yielding 461 yards a game, 120 more than the Bulldogs are allowing.
Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb combined for 265 rushing yards to pace the Tigers' season-best production of 475 total yards.
Auburn also scored three touchdowns out of four trips inside New Mexico State's 20-yard line.
The Tigers had reached the end zone on less than a third of their red zone trips entering the game (6 of 19).
Auburn tried to prevent the Aggies from keeping eight or nine defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop the run by firing several shots down the field.
Wallace overthrew an open Sammie Coates on a deep ball that would have been a sure touchdown. He also hit Emory Blake for a 29-yard gain and fellow freshman Ricardo Louis on a 21-yarder before getting the ball to Trovon Reed across the middle for a 40-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"Eventually he made some really good things happen," Chizik said. "I think that our team has confidence in him. I think that he'll gain more confidence as the games go on and he gets a little more playing time. I think that the spark that he can bring to our football team with some things that he can do and obviously improve on, I think will be big as we move forward."
Wallace got his first significant playing time beyond the Wildcat role in the second half against No. 15 Texas A&M. Now, he's gearing up for an even bigger challenge as the starter against an SEC defense.
"It's just a matter of staying on course and getting better every day," Wallace said. "That's the biggest thing, getting better every day. If we're able to do that, then we're going to have success."