AUBURN, Ala. — Injured, exhausted and exposed, the Auburn defense looked overmatched Saturday, giving up 43 points and 566 yards to an impressive Arkansas offense.
Somehow, that defensive group was also the difference in the game.
The No. 7 Tigers forced turnovers on three straight fourth-quarter possessions, each leading to a touchdown to turn a tightly contested track meet into a runaway 65-43 win against No. 12 Arkansas before a sellout Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd.
“I sound like a broken record, but we refuse to lose,” Auburn quarterback Cam Newton said. “The closer the game gets, the closer the team gets.”
It is the most points the Tigers (7-0, 4-0 SEC) have scored in an SEC game, topping the 63 they produced in a win against Florida in 1970.
The Tigers, who should move up in the national polls following losses by Nebraska and Ohio State, remain one of two undefeated teams in the SEC. The other is another imperfect unbeaten: LSU, which comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium next Saturday with the Western Division lead at stake.
“We know we didn’t play well all night,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “For all of the things that we didn’t do well as a team, we beat an extremely good football team tonight. That’s the bottom line.”
The game was billed as a matchup between potential Heisman Trophy quarterbacks. Newton didn’t disappoint, adding to his SEC rushing lead by carrying it 25 times for 188 yards and three touchdowns. He added 140 passing yards and another score.
His Arkansas counterpart, however, didn’t make it through the second quarter. Ryan Mallett, the SEC passing leader, left in the second quarter with a concussion after taking a hard hit near the goal line from defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
“To me, it’s just a normal hit I put on any quarterback,” Fairley said. “It just so happened he landed awkward on something.”
Mallett’s backup didn’t miss a beat, however. Sophomore Tyler Wilson, who got plenty of reps in the spring when Mallett had a foot injury, threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns as a replacement, shredding an Auburn defense ranked 91st nationally against the pass.
Tigers defensive coordinator Ted Roof has experienced something similar in the past.
“One year, we knocked the guy at Clemson out and in comes a guy named Woody Dantzler,” the former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator said. “So, yeah, I’ve had experience with backup quarterbacks.”
The last of Wilson’s touchdown tosses, a zipped 23-yarder to Greg Childs on a slant pattern one minute into the fourth quarter, gave Arkansas (4-2, 1-2 SEC) a 43-37 lead.
Auburn answered with a 68-yard drive, capped by a Newton-to-Emory Blake touchdown pass that made it 44-43 Auburn.
That’s when the defense arrived. Linebacker Craig Stevens and defensive tackle Mike Blanc chased down running back Broderick Green on a run near the Auburn sideline. Just before Green hit the ground, the ball squirted loose.
Safety Zac Etheridge picked it up and high-stepped 47 yards for a touchdown upheld after a review of the instant replay. The Tigers’ first defensive touchdown this year made it 51-43.
“I felt like once we got the fumble, that just turned the momentum over and strengthened our defense, gave us a little bit of confidence out there,” Stevens said. “You know, we were able to turn one turnover into two, two into three. I just felt like that helped get the ball rolling for us.”
Wilson, who was sharp his first two quarters, threw interceptions to linebacker Josh Bynes on each of Arkansas’ next two possessions. The first set up a 3-yard touchdown plunge by Newton, the second a 38-yard run by tailback Mike Dyer.
On an otherwise forgettable defensive day, the turnovers made everything all right.
“We try not to let how we play be based on the circumstances around us,” Chizik said. “You can be playing very poorly, but if you let that beat you twice then you are going to have a problem.
“We just felt like if we kept playing, kept playing and just keep chopping wood, something eventually has to happen good.”
Combined, the SEC’s top two offenses generated 108 points — the most in a regulation SEC game — and 1,033 yards.
The wild game prompted a similar question to many players: Have you ever played in a game quite like this?
Newton flipped around the query:
“The question is, have y’all ever seen a game like that?”