COLUMBIA, Mo. — Jarrett Stidham had the second-best passing performance in SEC history against Mercer last Saturday. But the Auburn football quarterback put up impressive numbers without attempting a pass of 30-plus yards.
That wasn’t going to happen again Saturday night in Columbia, Mo. On the first play of the game, Stidham dropped back and fired a huge deep ball over the middle of the field to sophomore Kyle Davis. The 58-yard catch was the longest of Auburn’s long season, and it set the tone for what was to come at Faurot Field.
“We got off to a fast start,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We really talked about that being important. I think we hit a big play the first play of the game. It obviously gave us some momentum.”
Stidham hit two more receivers for huge plays later in the game — a 46-yarder to Will Hastings late in the first quarter and a 57-yard touchdown to Nate Craig-Myers in the third quarter. Those three deep balls comprised all but 57 of Stidham’s 218 passing yards against Missouri.
The 58-yarder to Davis and the 57-yarder to Craig-Myers were Auburn’s first two pass plays of 50-plus yards in 2017. That matches the total Auburn had in 13 games last season.
“Any time you can hit a big play early, obviously it sets up the tempo, sets up the mood,” Stidham said after the game, a 51-14 win for Auburn over struggling Missouri. “We just kind of wanted to build off of that. That’s what we did.”
After chasing the deep ball but never getting it against Clemson, and sticking to shorter routes against Mercer, Auburn finally got its vertical passing game to click at Missouri.
“There were plenty of times throughout the first three games that we had it, we just didn’t execute well on the deep ball,” Stidham said. “Today, it worked out for us. We got some big plays.”
According to Malzahn, hitting the deep ball — especially early — was a special emphasis from first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.
Those long passes coincided with Auburn’s best rushing performance since Week 1. The Tigers took advantage of more room against a stretched Missouri defense and averaged five yards per carry.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” Malzahn said. “When you can do that, it opens everything else up. You can really call your complete offense. I thought Chip did an outstanding job tonight with his game plan, with the balance, with the different things with the misdirection and everything.”
That misdirection came in handy on Stidham’s touchdown pass to Craig-Myers in the third quarter. Auburn used pre-snap shifts with running back Kerryon Johnson, who had 5 rushing touchdowns in the game, to draw Missouri’s safeties closer to the line of scrimmage.
When that happened, Stidham had time to toss the ball right over the middle to a wide-open Craig-Myers for an easy score.
“We set it up perfectly throughout the entire game,” Stidham said. “We knew exactly what they were going to do, and, sure enough, it paid off. He got behind that safety.”
Making things happen in the vertical passing game against Missouri was a point of pride for Auburn’s receivers. Through the first three weeks of the season, Auburn’s top passes mostly came on shorter, underneath routes involving slot receivers Hastings and Ryan Davis.
On Saturday night, Auburn let everyone — Hastings included — go deep.
“We really worked on the deep ball this week,” Hastings said. “We wanted to show that we could do it. Coach Lindsey had a great plan for it, and we just prepared a lot for them.”
Auburn’s offensive players believe the success with the vertical passing game will give the attack great momentum heading into Week 5 against Mississippi State, a defense that gave up touchdown passes of 41 and 59 yards Saturday in a 31-3 loss to Georgia.
“I think any time you can execute a lot of deep balls like that, it kind of sets up the tempo for the offense,” Stidham said. “Get it going and everything like that. We just wanted to spread it out a little bit and get it into those guys’ hands.”