ATHENS – The first time, the lasting memory of Jake Fromm was the Georgia quarterback hitting the ground, brought down by an Auburn defender. Jarrett Stidham, meantime, spent that first game surveying the pocket before calmly delivering a completion, or just handing off to Kerryon Johnson.
Now comes the rematch, and because of events in that game and since, the two starting quarterbacks could have more put on them in the SEC championship. And their play could end up deciding who wins this year’s title.
Johnson’s injury and uncertain status enhances the chances that Auburn will ask Stidham to pass more. And Georgia’s inability to run on Auburn’s fierce defense the first time means UGA will likely adjust by giving Fromm more high-percentage pass plays this time.
Here’s a look at each quarterback entering Saturday’s game:
Season: Completion percentage of 62.0 (third in SEC), 9.6 yards per attempt (first in SEC), 165.8 yards per game (seventh in SEC),
19 TD, 5 INT.
Vs. Auburn: 13-for-28, 184 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, sacked four times.
The question many have – can Fromm carry the team if the run fails – may be a bit misguided. Fromm has thrown it well this year when needed, and when he’s had time.
The problem in the Auburn game was not having a good backup plan when the run failed, and not protecting Fromm well. So it would be reasonable to expect more quick passes this week, with some back-shoulder and other intermediate passes to try to force Auburn not to load the box.
“I know they’ll have a better gameplan for Fromm, for sure, knowing the run game wasn’t there (the first time),” said D.J. Shockley, the last Georgia quarterback to win an SEC championship, in 2005. “Giving him more high-percentage throws, give him more pre-snap things, get him more easy completions, whether it’s streak routes, or quick slants … there’s stuff like that will get him going.”
Shockley also puts some of it on Georgia’s receivers, who he said need to do a better job of getting open. And of course the line needs to give him more time, but that’s by no means a sure thing.
“It’s really important he plays with poise,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He’s under duress in every game that I’ve seen. The quarterback position in this league, you’re going to be under duress. It’s one of those that he has to execute the plan, not try to be superhuman, allow his play makers around him to help make plays and play within the system. A big part of this game is not making turnovers, and we’ve got to try to force some on them and not turn it over ourselves.”
Season: 68.5 completion percentage (first in SEC), 9.1 yards per attempt (third in SEC), 223.5 yards per game (third in SEC), 16 TD,
Vs. Georgia: 16-for-23, 214 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, sacked twice.
Stidham had a rough start to the season – only 79 yards passing at Clemson in Week 2 – but has gradually become a potent weapon, arguably the best quarterback in the SEC. He’s not the classic dual-threat runner that Gus Malzahn has employed at Auburn – running isn’t his first or second option, as CBS analyst Gary Danielson put it – but he can run when needed, and he can really sling it.
Shockley, analyzing Stidham’s improvement for the SEC Network, noticed something in the Clemson game.
“(Stidham) was looking a little bit at that line, and he wasn’t as decisive with his throws and his decisions,” Shockley said. “And now you can just see that he’s ripping it. You see someone letting it go, and he’s making more of the good decisions that you want. He’s definitely grown, not just as a player, but as a passer later in the season.”
The challenge is somehow limiting Stidham’s accuracy. Smart, asked how to do that, said that applying more pressure would be great but not as easy as it sounds. Auburn likes to use seven-man protections for Stidham, who has time to wait for his receiver to overcome the numbers disadvantage in the secondary.
“They do a good job of putting him in situations to be successful and to be honest, he’s a really good quarterback who, I think, has gotten the greatest amount of improvement during the year of any player that I’ve seen from early in the year,” Smart said. “He’s got confidence in the system. He’s gotten used to the SEC. I think he’s playing at a high level.”
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