A sparkling performance by projected first round quarterback Jarrett Stidham pushed No. 9 Auburn past No. 6 Washington and their celebrated passer Jake Browning Saturday 21-16 in the Chick-Fil-A Classic in Atlanta.
Too often game analysis begins and ends with quarterbacks but this clash of playoff hopefuls truly warrants focusing on the passers.
Stidham, the 22nd rated player on my Big Board, completed 26 of 36 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown in the win.
Browning, a possible Day Three pick currently ranked 10th on NFLDraftScout.com’s list of senior passers, actually threw for more yards (296) against the Tigers but was far less efficient, completing 18 of 32 passes. More importantly, Browning turned the ball over twice.
Stidham was surgical to start, completing his first six passes for 81 yards, including this beauty to Sal Canella to cap the Tigers’ first series of the season and stake Auburn to an early lead.
The 6-3, 215 pound redshirt junior consistently threw his receivers open, making NFL caliber throws look easy against one of the more gifted secondaries in the country.
His performance earned praise from new Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy.
While Stidham's poise and accuracy were his most impressive traits, he also is an above average athlete for the position. Stidham showed off his pocket mobility, dancing out of trouble on several occasions and scrambling effectively, including for a gain of 18 yards.
He took some solid shots in doing so, however, including one particularly heavy blow by Washington’s 6-2, 322 pound nose guard Greg Gaines.
Stidham and the rest of Auburn's offense was stymied by Washington for much of the second half. His eyes never dropped to look at the pass rush and his accuracy remained impressive, whether he stood still in the pocket or was on the move.
Accuracy, poise, pocket mobility, toughness - Stidham checked a lot of boxes for scouts Saturday, staking a claim that he should top the QB rankings.
For as hot as Stidham began, Browning started ice cold.
After a quick three and out in which the Huskies appeared rattled by the Auburn-heavy crowd, Browning abruptly ended Washington's second drive, floating a lazy pass to the left sideline that was intercepted on an alert play by Auburn’s Jamel Dean.
It was an inexplicable decision by the Huskies four-year starter, especially given that Browning possesses below average arm strength.
Browning contributed to another dubious turnover with this late pitch at the Auburn three-yard line.
But give him credit, Browning is a gamer.
What Browning may lack in velocity, he makes up with grit, touch and anticipation on deeper throws, often firing passes before his receivers make their break.
In helping guide a stirring comeback, Browning dropped passes over the top against one-on-one coverage and executed a couple of pretty back-shoulder fades, including one that junior wideout Quinten Pounds turned into perhaps the game’s most eye-popping play.
Like Stidham, Browning is an underrated and competitive athlete very willing to run with the football when the defense doesn’t account for him. While far from physically imposing, the 6-1, 215 pound Browning showed his trademark toughness, lowering his shoulder to gain extra yardage when he could and getting up from this shot, among others.
Browning admitted trying to do too much in the past, however, and he looked guilty of the same on the Huskies final two offensive snaps Saturday, taking sacks rather than lobbing passes downfield in the hope that one of his receivers might rescue him with another incredible grab.
The silver lining for Browning and the Huskies, of course, is that this was only the start of the season. There is plenty of time to move back up the rankings for both.
For Stidham, it wasn't a performance that looks as good on paper as the four touchdowns thrown in a win Saturday by Missouri's Drew Lock, much less the five by Oregon's Justin Herbert or West Virginia's Will Grier in their team's victories.
But make no mistake, in the race to be the first quarterback selected in the 2019 NFL draft, no one took a bigger first step forward Saturday than Stidham.
Other notable performers for Auburn included man-child defensive tackle Derrick Brown (among my favorite breakout candidates this year) do-it-all playmaker Ryan Grant and hard-hitting safety Daniel Thomas.
Aaron Fuller caught seven passes for a game-high 135 receiving yards to prove the Huskies’ most consistent skill-position player on the day and senior running back Myles Gaskin surpassed former Oakland Raiders first round pick Napoleon Kaufman to become Washington’s all-time leading rusher on this play, appropriately enough the longest run by either team on the day. Gaskin now has 4,130 rushing yards, including the 75 he rushed for Saturday in a losing effort.