While everyone awaits the big showdown between Alabama and LSU Saturday night, a pair of star quarterbacks from the SEC reminded scouts that the talent in the conference extends far beyond these two powerhouses.
With Auburn held to just 19 rushing yards at home against Texas A&M, head coach Gus Malzahn had no choice but to turn to his embattled redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham and he delivered, tossing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter – including this game-winner with just 1:41 remaining – to stun the visiting Aggies 28-24 in front of a delirious fan base at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
As has often been the case over his career, Stidham’s numbers aren’t as eye-popping as the ones being posted by Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins or West Virginia’s Will Grier, among others. He completed 18 of 29 passes for “just” 239 yards and the two scores while not throwing an interception.
It was Stidham’s efficiency and poise down the stretch, however, that scouts watching this game won’t soon forget.
Playing like a true difference-maker for perhaps the first game since a season-opening win against Washington, Stidham delivered a victory for Auburn in a game it had no business winning. The Aggies won in virtually every category that typically decides a game, including the number of first downs (28, compared to 13 for Auburn), total yards (421-278), time of possession (38:41-21:19), though it did lose the turnover battle (2-0).
A few hours later, it was Drew Lock and Missouri stunning the 11th ranked Florida Gators in The Swamp, taking a 21-10 lead into halftime as its quarterback showed the patience and poise scouts expect out of a senior who entered the game with a conference-best (and third nationally) 87 career touchdown passes.
While his average gained per attempt was low as Missouri attempted to mitigate Florida’s pass rush and crowd noise, Lock showed the kind of efficiency Saturday against the Gators that he had previously only shown this season against out of conference foes, completing 15 of 21 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown in the first half to stake his team to a 21-10 lead.
Lock’s steady performance was all the more impressive given that his favorite targets and fellow future NFL draft picks - tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and wide receiver Emmanuel Hall – were limited against the Gators with the former being knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury and the latter limited with a sore hamstring.
That forced Lock to turn to true freshmen like Kam Scott, who he found streaking down the seam on this deep post to give the visiting Tigers a 28-10 lead early in the third quarter.
The touchdown to Scott gave Lock 89 for his career, tying him with Peyton Manning for third most in SEC history. That mark didn’t last long, with Lock throwing his third touchdown of the game moments later after Missouri’s defense held Florida to its third consecutive three and out, prompting Gators head coach Dan Mullen to bench his starting quarterback Feleipe Franks in favor of Kyle Trask.
While Lock’s third touchdown only covered four yards, he showed off his experience, dropping to a sidearm throwing motion to rifle a quick slant to Hall, who was well covered.
Stidham and Lock entered the 2018 season among the highest regarded quarterbacks in the country and viewed by some as potential first round heirs to Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and the rest of last year’s remarkable class.
Unfortunately, neither has lived up to these expectations with Stidham entering Saturday’s game – the ninth of Auburn’s season – with just eight touchdowns thrown on the year. Further, he played poorly in losses to LSU and Tennessee, throwing two interceptions in both games.
Lock, on the other hand, has battled a reputation of excelling against inferior competition and struggling against the SEC.
That was certainly not the case Saturday, as Lock completed 24 of 32 passes overall for 250 yards and his three scores against zero turnovers to spark the Tigers’ upset win.
Stidham and Lock’s performances Saturday should give them at least a short reprieve from some of the criticism directed toward them as their statistics (and team wins) have dropped this season from a year ago.
Both cases could be examples of the quarterbacks getting too much blame when things are going wrong, similar to what happened with Darnold at Southern California last season at this time.
Like the Trojans, Auburn and Missouri have struggled to replace talent along the offensive line and skill positions which helped their star quarterbacks capture the attention of scouts in the first place.
As such, if there was a statement made this Saturday, it was by Stidham and Lock who not only successfully beat quality defenses, they quieted their critics and reminded scouts that while arm strength and accuracy are important, poise and resiliency are just as critical at the quarterback position.