SEATTLE — Byron Murphy spent many of his Saturday afternoons watching Auburn University football growing up in Arizona. He remembers seeing Cam Newton quarterback in those colors (“Oh, he’s nice,” Murphy says) before Newton went on to be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
“And here we are now,” said Murphy, the University of Washington junior cornerback said. “The first game, the biggest game probably of our season. I know we’re going to be hyped for this.”
Murphy will be staring at the highest-rated Auburn quarterback since Newton: 6-foot-3 junior Jarrett Stidham, who is widely considered one of the top quarterbacks in this year’s NFL draft class.
This is the first time UW will open the season ranked in the top 10 and facing another team ranked in the top 10 since 1962, when then-No. 10 Washington tied No. 7 Purdue, 7-7, in Seattle.
It’s also No. 6 UW’s first meeting with No. 9 Auburn. The game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
And expect to see many more quarterbacks like Stidham when the Huskies eventually begin Pac-12 play. Dual-threat quarterbacks on the schedule include Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Utah’s Tyler Hundley and Steven Montez at Colorado.
Except Stidham’s combination of strong arm and mobility puts him in a class apart. The Huskies have been able to use Jacob Eason, the Lake Stevens graduate and transfer from the University of Georgia, as their scout-team quarterback, but Stidham is still difficult to duplicate in practice.
What a way for new Huskies defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake to get his first taste of calling plays.
“It’s football in the 2018 era,” Lake said Monday. “There’s really not any quarterback that can’t run and beat you with his legs anymore. We call it real football. Rarely is the ball just out on time. We have to stay on receivers, stay on receivers and hopefully he throws it to us or we tackle him before he can get it off.
“It’s just football in this day and age.”
That was also football last December, when the Huskies went to the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona.
Many of the Huskies should still have the image of Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley burned into their brains after he threw for 342 yards and ran for 60 in UW’s 35-28 loss.
This Auburn offense is much different than that Penn State team. The Tigers feature a spread style that clears space for a power run game.
But comparing Auburn’s Stidham to Penn State’s McSorley is much easier.
“Just in terms of a quarterback who can beat you with his legs on a third-and-10 and everything is covered up and he can run for 11 yards and keep the chains moving – that is definitely the same,” Lake said. “We have to get him down on the ground as fast as we can.
“Whoever is rushing, our D-line, or linebackers or whoever is in the secondary, we got to get him down on the ground. We can’t allow him to shake us off and surge for more yards. It’s going to be a difficult challenge, for sure.”
Much easier said than done.
“He’s an SEC-style bigger quarterback and when he throws he can put the ball on the money,” Murphy said. “He’s going to put the ball on the money and scramble. So, man, he’s a great quarterback. We’re going to have to be on our keys.”
But the Huskies’ greatest emphasis defensively this offseason was getting off the field on third downs, Murphy said, and running their offense back on the field. Talk about images burned in their brains for many of UW’s returning defensive starters – Penn State converted 13 of 17 third-down plays in the Fiesta Bowl.
“That’s our money down,” said junior defensive back Myles Bryant. “In the Fiesta Bowl we could not get off the field on third downs and that’s been our primary focus for this season and that’s what we’ve been emphasizing in practices is third downs. We got to get off the field.”
Much of that starts with UW’s defensive line getting pressure on Stidham. Senior defensive lineman Greg Gaines said the defense focused less on using quarterback spies this offseason and more on taking shots with well-placed blitzes to get quarterbacks on the ground.
And without giving away the defensive game plan, Gaines said his job is first to close off the rushing lanes. Auburn is still a run-first team, even without any returning starters in the backfield.
“We’re working a lot with handling a dual-threat quarterback like that,” Gaines said. “And we work a lot on getting good pressure, but also keeping him contained. We don’t want to leave rushing lanes open on the inside. Just try to keep him in the pocket – don’t give him that option to be a dual threat and force him to throw.
“In pass rush, some guys will try to take a shot too wide and go around and you can’t do that in this game. We have to be disciplined in our assignments and disciplined at containing just so we don’t leave those big gaps.”
It will take a full game of being disciplined defensively.
“We definitely learned some things from that Fiesta Bowl – we watched the film and you’re going, ‘We could have been so much better,’” Murphy said. “So we have that chip on our shoulders, knowing we have to come out and go hard. We have to make sure we come out and our defense, everybody, every individual is on their keys and locked into their assignments because obviously with a dual-threat quarterback like that we all have to be on our keys.
“This is going to set the tone for us, defensively. This is one of the best quarterbacks we’re going to face and he’ll be a high NFL draft pick next year, but we have to contain him.”