Slapped with first loss in Chizik era
By ANDY BITTER
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The high noon shootout anticipated Saturday at Razorback Stadium didn’t live up to its billing.
One of the gunslingers arrived late.
It took 2 1/2 quarters for No. 17 Auburn’s fast-paced offense to show up, but, by then the deficit was too large. Arkansas, behind Ryan Mallett’s arm, a solid running game and a surprisingly stout defensive effort, already had built an insurmountable 31-point lead in a 44-23 victory, the Tigers’ first defeat in the Gene Chizik era.
“We just didn’t come out to play today,” said Auburn running back Ben Tate, who ran for a career-high 184 yards, one of Auburn’s few offensive bright spots. “You can’t just take a whole half off and think you can come back and beat somebody in the SEC. We just didn’t live up to our standards and play the way we normally play.”
Arkansas (3-2, 1-2 SEC) had no such problem. Mallett threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns, and the Razorbacks ran for 221 yards and four scores, getting 145 yards from tailback Michael Smith.
But the big story was how the Hogs’ porous defense — one that was trampled by Georgia and Alabama and entered the day ranked 97th nationally — stymied a high-octane Auburn group that was fifth in the nation in total offense and scoring.
“We came out dead,” Auburn running back Onterio McCalebb said. “It really humbled us.”
The Tigers had a first half that hearkened back to 2008, when offensive ineptitude was the norm.
Their first four drives produced 28 yards. They had only one first down in the first quarter and five in the first half. A ground game that averaged 253.8 yards per game entering the day managed only 40 by halftime.
The constant starts and stops bogged down their trademark fast pace.
“We didn’t get any first downs,” Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “Usually, once we get a first down, that’s when our tempo starts, and they did a good job of getting us off the field.”
Everybody played a starring role in the comedy of errors. The Tigers had to burn two timeouts in the first half because of a dwindling play clock. They had a pair of false-start penalties that helped kill early drives. And they didn’t cash in big when they had the chance, the biggest misfire coming when quarterback Chris Todd, who faced constant pressure for the first time all season, overthrew a wide open Terrell Zachery after the receiver had gotten behind the Arkansas defense by 10 yards.
“We did all the classic things that you can’t do — certainly on the road and certainly in this league,” Chizik said.
Arkansas, meanwhile, scored … and scored and scored and scored. The Razorbacks built a 27-3 halftime lead, one that grew to 34-3 midway through the third quarter, when Mallett, who already had thrown for two scores, ran one in from 4 yards out.
“You can put yourself in a hole like that,” Auburn left tackle Lee Ziemba said. “It’s tough to come back from.”
Auburn nearly pulled itself back in the game but couldn’t avoid crippling mistakes. Tate, despite his monster day, turned over the ball at the Arkansas 2-yard line after failing to get a grip on a handoff. It led to Mallett’s touchdown run.
Down 31, the Tigers finally hit their offensive stride. A 32-yard pass to Quindarius Carr helped set up Tate’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Auburn struck big on its next two drives, getting a pair of 60-yard runs, one by Tate up the right sideline for a touchdown and one on a reverse by Zachery that set up a McCalebb’s 3-yard run to get the Tigers within 34-23 with 9 seconds left in the third quarter.
Auburn’s hope was short-lived. Arkansas’ Dennis Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 70 yards, somehow dancing past three Tigers defenders at the Auburn 20 before busting up the sideline as the quarter expired. It set up Green’s second touchdown run of the day, a 3-yarder that made it a three-score game again at 41-23.
“We got beat today — no excuses,” said Chizik, who failed in his bid to join Terry Bowden as the only Auburn coach to start his tenure on the Plains 6-0. “There’s nothing we did to help us win the football game.”
The loss came the same week the Tigers had climbed back into the polls for the first time in a year.
“No one’s happy when you lose, but it’s how you bounce back,” Tate said. “There’s been a lot of one-loss teams that go to the SEC championship and go to the national championship. We can still control our own destiny.”