No fireworks, no problem: Not time to worry about Jarrett Stidham, Auburn passing game yet

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Jarrett Stidham takes the snap and drops back. The pocket takes shape around him.

Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. Auburn’s offensive line has stoned the initial Georgia Southern rush. Stidham has plentiful space to step into one of the same laser-guided throws Auburn fans salivated over this spring. But he doesn’t step, doesn’t throw.

Five Mississippi. Six Mississippi. No receiver has come open, or if he has, Stidham hasn’t found him. His feet get happy. He starts to see the Eagles’ late-arriving rush and attempts to scramble.

Seven Mississippi. Stidham is sacked.

Auburn fans could be forgiven for thinking the above sequence happened more often Saturday night than it did. The Eagles finished with “only” 3 sacks, 1 of them on the busted protection that led to Stidham getting blindsided and the visitors scoop-and-scoring for their only points of the game. But it happened enough that given the opposition, Auburn fans also can be forgiven for wondering when — if ever — the quick-strike, bombs-away, secondary pants-wetting passing game they’ve dreamed of since A-Day will make its real-life debut.

Tigers receivers struggled mightily to create separation downfield. When Stidham found windows for big gains, both Darius Slayton and Sal Cannella failed to bring in catchable balls. Spring-game star Nate Craig-Myers finished without a catch ( and according to the official box score, was never even targeted). Though Stidham rarely forced throws, one first-half attempt in the direction of a blanketed Will Hastings was duly intercepted.

In the end, Auburn failed to complete a pass longer than 19 yards against the Eagles. Stidham finished with a 58.3 percent completion rate, a 7.7 yards-per-attempt average, 2 touchdowns, 1 INT, and a 142.2 QB rating — acceptable numbers in a vacuum. But Sean White was vastly more effective against the Group of 5 competition he faced in 2016, posting a 206.1 rating against Arkansas State and a 239.3 rating against UL-Monroe. Based purely on the evidence available Saturday night, Auburn’s passing game may have  regressed.

Should Auburn fans be worried? Are they about to relive some of the nightmares of 2015 and 2016? The answers for now are no, and no. Here are seven reasons why:

The running game is as advertised. You don’t have to look any further than White’s lethally efficient run through the middle of Auburn’s 2016 schedule to know that when Gus Malzahn’s rushing attack is humming, you don’t  need a superstar quarterback making hay through the air. And after a slow start, that rushing attack hummed just as expected, crushing the Eagles front seven to the tune of 6.6 yards per rush (on 53 attempts) and 3 long touchdowns — all without Kamryn Pettway.

A potential Kerryon Johnson absence could sting (he suffered an apparent right hamstring injury Saturday), but Kam Martin looked like a more-than-serviceable Pettway backup, not only flashing his expected burst in the open field but picking up some rugged yards between the tackles as well.

Kam Martin warms up before a huge perfromance. (Sarah Lundgren/SEC Country)

Save the interception, positive things happened for the passing game even when it couldn’t find an opening downfield. Stidham occasionally escaped the pocket for positive yards. He came underneath to Hastings for multiple sizable gains on crossing routes. Later on, he picked up 10 yards on a checkdown to Martin on a third-and-11 (Auburn went for it on fourth down and converted). That Auburn punted only 1 time in 15 possessions isn’t  just on the ground game.

The play-calling and scheme were purest vanilla. It ain’t exactly gridiron rocket science:  If you want to take a deep shot off play-action, the down to do it is first or second. But before Stidham’s exit, 26 of Auburn’s 31 first-down play-calls (give or take a Stidham keeper) appear to have been rushes or passes into the flat. The second-down calls were a little more adventurous, but again overwhelmingly in favor of rushes and short throws.

The guess here is that with a little loosening of Lindsey’s game plan, Auburn’s receivers would have had an easier time loosening themselves from the Georgia Southern defenders.

Kyle Davis wasn’t available. The former 4-star recruit may or may not be ready to be the Auburn receiving corps’ bell cow, but let’s not pretend he wouldn’t have given Stidham another pivotal downfield target had he not been suspended for the opener.

Let’s give Georgia Southern’s secondary some credit.  No one reading this needs to be told the Eagles defensive backs aren’t Clemson’s defensive backs, but Tyson Summers’ secondary put up decent numbers in 2016, returns three starters and a fourth major contributor, and enters its second year in Summers’ schemes. They’re not what Auburn will see in Death Valley this weekend, but they’re not chopped liver, either.

Yes, Jarrett Stidham was rusty. No matter how good Stidham may be, not even Dan Marino could come back after 22 months without facing live competition and brush up against his ceiling from the first snap. Even so, it’s not that Stidham was misfiring on his deeper throws; by-and-large, he wasn’t attempting them in the first place. In a related story…

Stidham isn’t suddenly not Jarrett Stidham. Behold:

Is it possible the quarterback who can make that throw look  that effortless can’t keep Auburn’s offense moving even when the running game is gaining somewhere between 4 and 6 yards a carry? Again: The answer here is no.

It’s true: Stidham won’t turn Auburn into Sam Bradford’s 2006 Oklahoma offense overnight. It’s also true that a performance from the Tigers passing game that resembled even what Sean White accomplished in the pleasant parts of last season would have been welcome, and more encouraging than what we’ve seen. But Stidham and Co. never had to set the world ablaze from his first snap on the Plains. They just have to be ready for Clemson — and we saw enough positives Saturday to still believe they will be.

The post No fireworks, no problem: Not time to worry about Jarrett Stidham, Auburn passing game yet appeared first on SEC Country.

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