AUBURN, Ala. — A towering figure with a Texas-sized arm, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett is often spoken of in almost Bunyanesque terms.
“He’s 7-feet tall,” Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said, embellishing the 6-foot-6 signal caller’s height only slightly. “Strong arm, very accurate.
“You let him stand back there like he’s the Statue of Liberty, he’s going to make it happen.”
The last part is no exaggeration. The No. 7 Tigers will have their hands full Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium with Mallett and Arkansas’ talented group of wide receivers, who have left other SEC passing offenses in their dust.
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The Razorbacks lead the league in passing by nearly 100 yards per game. They are third nationally, residing in a statistical stratosphere usually reserved for air-it-out offenses such as Hawaii and Texas Tech.
Credit mostly goes to Mallett, the latest — and possibly greatest — quarterback in coach Bobby Petrino’s history of statistical juggernauts. The junior, who has thrown for 1,748 yards and 13 touchdowns in five games this year, holds 25 school records.
He is the most accomplished recent passer in the SEC, with 5,372 career passing yards and 43 touchdowns in a season and a half in Fayetteville.
“He’s seen it all, he has it all, he doesn’t get rattled, he stays in there, he has a lot of poise, and he’s as good as advertised,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said, leaving nothing out.
Mallett is of particular concern considering how much yardage the Tigers have given up through the air. Auburn’s pass defense is 10th in the SEC and 91st nationally, allowing 239.2 yards per game. Opponents have thrown for 220 yards or more in five of six games.
If there’s a positive to take away, it’s that most of that has been on short routes. The Tigers have eliminated the big pass plays — “X-plays,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof calls them, as in explosive.
Although Auburn has allowed more passing yards than any other SEC team, nobody has allowed fewer yards per completion (10.18).
The Tigers have given up only three plays that have gone for 25 or more yards. Mallett has 16 such passes this year, fourth most in the country.
“They hit a bunch of home runs against us last year,” Roof said, referring to Arkansas’ 44-23 rout in Fayetteville. “We don’t have to go any further than watch last year’s tape.”
Arkansas can be just as effective throwing underneath, though. The Razorbacks’ pass catchers include three of the SEC’s top 10 receivers: Joe Adams (21 catches for 408 yards), Greg Childs (28 for 363) and tight end D.J. Williams (22 for 259).
“You watch film, there ain’t one of them jogging or trotting; they’re running full speed,” Bynes said. “On the crossing routes, it seems like it takes their receivers one second to get from one side of the field to the next side. That’s how fast they were running.”
Auburn’s secondary won’t be the only unit in the spotlight. Getting pressure is what “makes the world go ’round for a defense when you’re facing a good quarterback,” Chizik said.
“I don’t know that (Mallett) gets flustered or rattled or any of that,” Chizik added. “Generically speaking, though, for any quarterback, you have to get pressure on the guy, and that’s going to obviously disrupt some timing.”
The Tigers didn’t do a good job of getting to the quarterback last Saturday, finishing with one sack and no quarterback hurries against Kentucky. For the year, though, they have the fourth-most sacks in the SEC with 15.
Overall, it will be a challenge unlike anything Auburn has faced this year.
“We’re excited for it,” cornerback T’Sharvan Bell said. “We’re going to accept the challenge, because that’s what all good players do.”