Like Washington's Jake Browning, Auburn quarterback is crafty in terms of avoiding the pass rush.
Byron Murphy didn’t have to think long about the question.
Washington’s sophomore cornerback was asked Monday about Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, considered by some to be the top quarterback prospect eligible for the 2019 NFL draft and one of biggest reasons the Tigers are 1.5-point favorites going into Saturday’s season opener between the sixth-ranked Huskies and No. 9 Auburn in Atlanta.
So, Byron, does Stidham remind you of anyone you’ve faced?
He pointed to the QB he sees every day in practice.
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“I feel like we could compare him to Jake (Browning),” Murphy said. “You know Jake can scramble a little bit, get out of the pocket.”
No, Browning’s running ability doesn’t scare anyone; he does have 12 career rushing touchdowns, though just a net total of 105 yards rushing the past three seasons. But Browning can be crafty with the way he avoids a pass rush, giving his receivers a chance to get open, and the Huskies see a similar style in Stidham.
“He’s a big, strong kid. He’s got a really good arm,” UW senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said. “He’s not much of a runner, but he does a really good job of extending plays with his feet, getting out on the move and avoiding sacks. He’s kind of similar to the way Jake plays. He’s not trying to run to get a first down, he’s trying to run to open up something for his receivers.”
In 2017, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Stidham threw for 3,158 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions, completing 66.5 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 153 yards (on 103 carries, including 35 sacks) and four TDs.
In a 35-28 loss in the Fiesta Bowl, the Huskies struggled to contain Penn State’s Trace McSorley, who threw for 342 yards and ran for 60 more on 12 carries. McSorley was the main reason Penn State converted 13 of 17 third downs.
“He kind of ran all over us,” Burr-Kirven said.
Stidham isn’t the dynamic runner McSorley is, but he did rush for 51 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in Auburn’s upset of No. 1 Alabama last year. He also ran in for a score in the Tigers’ other victory over a No. 1 team, Georgia, last season.
The Huskies’ ability to keep him in the pocket — and, in particular, their ability to get off the field on third down — will loom large Saturday afternoon in Atlanta.
“That’s been a primary focus for us this offseason,” defensive back Myles Bryant said.
The quarterbacks’ styles aren’t the only similarities between the UW and Auburn offenses.
The Tigers will use the kinds of shifts and motions the Huskies employ before the snap in an attempt to confuse and/or read the defense.
“They come out in a spread set, and you’d expect to see them throwing the ball all over the place. But they really are, at their core, a power-run team,” Burr-Kirven said. “They want to run inside zone, they want to run power gap-scheme stuff. It’s kind of a smoke-and-mirrors deal where they’re going to show you a lot of receivers, but at the end of the day they want to run the ball.”
Led by featured back Kerryon Johnson, Auburn ran the ball more often than any SEC team except Mississippi State in 2017, rushing on 63 percent of its snaps and averaging 45.9 rushing attempts per game. (The Huskies, by comparison, ran the ball 58 percent of the time and averaged 36.4 rushing attempts per game in 2017.)
“They love to run the ball, and the first thing we’ve got to do is stop the run,” UW defensive tackle Greg Gaines said.
Johnson is gone, and it appears Auburn will turn to junior Kam Martin (5-10, 193 pounds) and redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow (6-0, 213) out of the backfield this season.
“It’s easy to see the quarterback and his big arm and get caught up in all that stuff,” Burr-Kirven said, “but at the end of the day, when you put on the tape, it doesn’t lie. You see a team that wants to run the ball down people’s throats.”
Gaines good to go
Good news for the UW defense: Gaines, one the Pac-12’s top returning interior linemen, says he’s set to return against Auburn.
“I’m good, I’m ready to go,” he said Monday.
Gaines was limited late last season, and only played a few snaps in the Fiesta Bowl, because of a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He had a minor injury in the spring and had been a limited participant early in fall camp. That, it appears, was mostly precautionary.