FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — It took multiple questions worded in different ways, but Gus Malzahn finally cracked.
Auburn's head coach acknowledged Saturday's 35-17 victory over Arkansas was a special one for him, coming in his home state against a team he used to coach for. And aside from helping the Tigers (8-1, 4-1) pick up their fifth straight win, it also marked the first time Malzahn walked away from Razorback Stadium victorious when standing on the opposing sideline.
He didn't have to be reminded of that little tidbit, either.
"I knew that, there’s no doubt," he said. "We will enjoy this victory, because they’re hard to come by. Arkansas had a week to prepare. They’re a solid team and it was a tough victory."
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One need only look as far as Tre Mason to know how No. 11 Auburn came to achieve its eighth win of 2013.
The junior running back found the end zone a career-best four times and ran for a game-high 168 yards on 32 carries.
Malzahn leaped to praise Mason afterward, saying the Palm Beach, Fla., native deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the top players in the SEC at his position.
"Tre has established himself as one of the top running backs in our league," the coach said. "He’s a tough guy. He’s durable — he’s been a little banged up, but he’s getting a little healthier"
Quarterback Nick Marshall didn't have to do much — he finished with just 177 total yards (118 passing, 59 rushing), after all — but he was spectacular when he needed to be. That was evident when he hit Sammie Coates up the right sideline in the third quarter, with the sophomore receiver taking it for an 88-yard score to push Auburn's lead to 28-3.
Malzahn credited Coates for taking advantage of an opportunity when it presented itself.
"What we did is that we saw they were one-on-one with no help over the top and we just gave him a chance right there It was a really good throw and he made a good adjustment. That was one of the big plays of the game."
After that, things got interesting, as the Razorbacks rallied to cut the lead to 28-17. But as he did every time it was needed, Mason made a play, scooting into the end zone from the 12-yard line — marking his fourth touchdown of the contest — on the ensuing possession to push the advantage back to 35-17 and helping Auburn stave off the hosts' surge to capture its second consecutive road victory.
"That was a 'smoke draw,' one of (offensive line coach) J.B. Grimes' favorite plays," Malzahn said of the game's final score. "We were saying, 'Hey, should we throw it? Should we do this?' And we just decided, 'Hey, let's at least get three points out of it and not turn the ball over.' And then we run the draw out the back side and Tre made a really good run."
Every first half stat said the result should have been the other way around. Arkansas dominated in time of possession (21:43 to 8:17), running twice as many plays (46-22) as Auburn.
But as they often do, turnovers offset any advantage the Razorbacks (3-6, 0-5) might have had. After starting quarterback Brandon Allen left with a leg injury at the 9:38 mark of the opening period, backup AJ Derby came in and threw an interception on the first pass he attempted. Thanks to a deflection from senior defensive end Dee Ford, Cassanova McKinzy was able to come up with the first interception of his career, stopping Arkansas' opening drive, which had covered 61 yards and took 6:21 off the clock to begin the game.
The Tigers made the little bit of time they held the ball count, though. Nearly all of Auburn's success offensively in the first half was due to Mason. The junior back ran 13 times for 95 yards and scored two touchdowns. Both of his scores came up the middle capped short drives for the Tigers. In fact, the first lasted only 25 seconds. Getting the ball at its own 29 after recovering an Arkansas fumble, Auburn gave the ball to Mason twice and let him do the rest, gaining 20 yards on the first play and nine yards on the second. After initially lining up in its "Batman" formation — the same one Bret Bielema found fault with earlier this week — the Tigers reverted to its regular extra-point formation, with Cody Parkey knocking it in to put the lead at 7-0 at the 2:35 mark of the first quarter.
Mason's second touchdown came a little less than seven minutes of game time later, as he once more ran up the middle, this one from the 4-yard line with 10:53 to go in the second stanza.
Arkansas avoided a first-half shutout, though, as Zach Hocker was able to split the uprights on a 34-yard field goal with 12:52 remaining before the half.
It was the first time in 134 minutes, 10 seconds, the Razorbacks put points on the board, as they were shutout by Alabama 52-0 in their last outing and didn't score in the final 40-plus minutes of play the previous week in a 52-7 loss to South Carolina.