Auburn University

He took the blame for Auburn’s loss, but there was a lot more to go around

Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham (8) gets loose during the second half of his team’s game against Tennessee on Saturday in Auburn, Ala.
Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham (8) gets loose during the second half of his team’s game against Tennessee on Saturday in Auburn, Ala. AP

Jarrett Stidham stepped into the pocket and face the inevitable pressure. Knowing what was coming didn’t make it any easier. Still, Stidham didn’t duck or try to scramble. Part of the deal of being a high profile quarterback is facing the media, and much to his credit, Stidham stepped up.

Stidham didn’t win the football game Saturday. Auburn lost to Tennessee 30-24, a crushing defeat for a team that just a month ago envisioned playing for a national championship. But Stidham did win something else just as important, if not more so.

Respect.

Shortly after Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn left the podium of the interview room, Stidham stepped up, took a sip of water, then gazed ahead to the awaiting media mob.

No excuses. No alibis. No sugar-coating. No finger-pointing. Stidham committed three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble, the latter of which was recovered for a touchdown.

“Gotta do a better job. That’s all it is,” Stidham said. “Gotta hold onto the ball.”

No, that’s not all it was. There was plenty of blame to spread, from poor coaching to shoddy protection to dropped passes. His turnovers contributed to Auburn’s third loss. But so did the defense’s inability to stop Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who passed for 328 yards and two touchdowns. That included eight passes of 19 or more yards, four of which were 30 yards or longer. And that doesn’t include a 39-yard pass that was nullified by a Tennessee penalty.

Even so, Stidham did what leaders do. He got his teammates’ backs.

“It’s really disappointing, obviously, because we have very, very high expectations coming into this year. We’ve lost three games to this point, and quite honestly I think we should have won all of them. We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot. Today I turned the ball over three times. That’s completely on me regardless of any circumstances. I’ve got to do a better job, hold onto the ball, not turn it over. It’s not fun losing like this. But like I’ve said over and over, our guys are hungry to get better every week. I know collectively as a team we’re going to stick together. We’re going to block out all of the outside noise, and we’re just going to continue to grind for each other, just like we have all along. And that’s what it’s all about, just playing for each other and really just continuing to build those relationships with those guys and just fight for those guys.”

Granted, that might not be gratifying to the fans who want their team to win. And it probably wasn’t even gratifying to Stidham himself. He transferred from Baylor to Auburn last year for one reason — to win championships.

But it still matters for something, especially considering there are still five more football games to play this year, and Stidham has another season of eligibility.

“Just go back to work. You have to go back to work. You don’t have any other options,” Stidham said. “I know how I’ve been brought up, how I’ve been raised, no matter the circumstances, you just continue to fight, continue to go work every day and continue to get better.”

Part of the problem is Auburn’s offensive line is just not very good. Whether there is enough talent on the line to improve enough to win SEC championship game is hard to say. Another issue is Auburn’s running backs are very average by SEC standards.

Then there is Stidham. His skill set is not ideal for Auburn‘s offense, which is predicated on at least the threat of the quarterback running the football. It doesn’t have to be Cam Newton or even Nick Marshall. Look at what LSU’s Joe Burrow did to Georgia.

The problem isn’t so much Stidham as it is the system. If it’s so hard to find a Nick Marshall, then it is time to change the offense of system to something that is more recruiting friendly.

Stidham can be a winning quarterback. He’s a better passer than all three of the quarterbacks he has lost to this season — Guarantano, Burrow and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald. It is up to the coaches to put Stidham in position to succeed.

Malzahn has been in the SEC for nearly 10 years. Defensive coordinators long ago caught onto his gimmicks.

The biggest difference in the SEC and every other conference in college football is the size, speed and athleticism of the defensive linemen. You would think by now Malzahn would have figured that out. All the evidence suggests otherwise.

Malzahn’s contract might make him unfireable, but that does not mean he is not accountable. Somebody at Auburn needs to insist that he make changes or leave on his own accord. Admittedly, that is a bit backward.

Generally, you don’t pay somebody $50 million and tell him or her what to do.

But if Malzahn refuses to learn and refuses to change, then make him answer to somebody.

Social media experts who are calling for Stidham to be benched need to remember two things. There is no Justin Fields or Tua Tagovailoa — or even Jalen Hurts — standing on the sidelines. Secondly, any coach worthy of a $50 million contract ought to be able to devise a plan for his quarterback to be more successful.

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