AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn tried to calm down the Auburn football fan base this week.
Jarrett Stidham only had three starts to his name heading into Auburn’s opener against Georgia Southern. The last one came 22 months ago, before Stidham took a year off to preserve his eligibility after deciding to transfer from Baylor.
It was like the Auburn coach was preaching patience with his new starting quarterback.
That proved to be a good call for Malzahn, who watched as Stidham had an inconsistent debut in Auburn’s 41-7 win over Georgia Southern. Stidham finished 14-for-24 passing with 185 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
“There was one turnover that was supposed to be picked up, but there was some miscommunication which was a tough one,” Malzahn said. “I thought that it was good for him to get out there and experience game action. I thought he managed the game well. … . I thought he did a solid job.”
Stidham also had a rushing touchdown, taking a run-pass option keeper through the heart of the Georgia Southern defense for a 14-yard score midway through the second quarter.
Stidham’s mobility might’ve been his strongest suit against Georgia Southern. He extended plays and made some decent plays on the ground. Through the air, though, Auburn didn’t provide the fireworks that fans might have expected.
Auburn’s new starting quarterback was a lot harder on his performance than his coach was.
“Did some good things, did some bad things,” Stidham said. “Obviously I think we ran the ball extremely well tonight. … The passing game, we’ve got to get a lot better.”
Some of Stidham’s problems Saturday night weren’t all on him. The Tigers had issues getting solid separation all night long against the Eagles’ veteran secondary, outside of a few good plays from slot receivers Ryan Davis and Will Hastings.
Auburn's WRs: still not getting open. I know GS's DBs are the strength of their D, but Clemson's are gonna be much better.
— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) September 3, 2017
Davis caught Stidham’s first touchdown pass on a short pitch-and-catch from just inside the red zone. But negatives for the receiving corps were obvious, including a fumble from Darius Slayton and several mishandled passes that went from first-down conversions to incompletions.
The Texas native also coughed up the football on Georgia Southern’s only touchdown of the game — a scoop-and-score after he was hit hard from his blind side not too soon after the play began. The offensive line didn’t put out its best effort in pass protection, especially at the two new tackle spots.
Stidham started the game without his top running back, Kamryn Pettway, who was suspended for the opener. Sophomore receiver Kyle Davis, who was also suspended, could have brought something different to the receivers in the vertical game. No. 2 running back Kerryon Johnson also went down with a hamstring injury in the second quarter, further hampering Auburn’s skill positions.
But Stidham showed some rust in his first competitive game since November 2015. He held onto the ball too long on certain pass plays, looking quite tentative after he forced an interception over the middle of the field on his fourth drive of the game.
There were also a few miscommunications, most notably on a pass near the end zone that was intended for Slayton. Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey looked frustrated on the sidelines after the miss.
Stidham redeemed himself somewhat on the final drive, hitting Hastings in the corner of the end zone with a perfectly placed 19-yard touchdown pass. It was enough to give the former Baylor quarterback some momentum from a lopsided win heading into Week 2.
But, for most of the night, whatever could look rough for Auburn’s passing game did. Stidham never looked in rhythm throwing the ball during what was a largely underwhelming performance for him, the Tigers’ receivers, and the front five. He never completed more than three passes in a row.
“I didn’t think I played all that well,” Stidham said. “There’s a lot of things I have to cleanup, but that’s why you play. You have to get better, that’s why you play, you have to get better.”
An old coaching adage states the most improvement comes between the first and second games of the season. Stidham and the rest of his supporting cast will need to prove that, as they travel to face defending national champion Clemson and its star-studded defensive front next Saturday night in Death Valley.
“We can’t turn the ball over,” Stidham said. “Especially if you turn the ball over against the fifth-ranked team in the country, they’re going to let you hear it. We’ve got to be a lot better, especially on the offensive side of the ball.”
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