FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Auburn faced an overmatched and desperate team Saturday night
Why else would Arkansas have had its starting running back attempt two passes? (For the record, both fell incomplete.) Further, why would the Razorbacks have gone for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line when trailing just 14-3 in the second quarter? Kick a field goal and it’s a one-possession game.
But no decision reeked of abject bleakness more than attempting an onside kick in the second period and Auburn ahead just 7-3. Of course, with the way the game went, the Tigers recovered it and scored just six plays later.
Auburn was expected to win, which it did 35-17. Overcoming the countless attempts at trickery by Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is to be commended, though. (About the only thing the Razorbacks didn’t try was a Statue of Liberty play — and I’m not convinced they weren’t planning on running it if the right opportunity had presented itself.)
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Oh, and it didn’t help Arkansas’ cause that it had two costly turnovers in as many possessions to begin the game, which wasted the overwhelming advantage it held in time of possession (8:47 to 3:38) with nothing to show for it.
And despite all the hubbub over returning “home” and finally winning in Razorback Stadium as an opposing coach, Gus Malzahn thought little of the accomplishment aside from it being another victory.
“Big win for us, No. 8,” he said. “On the road, in this league, Arkansas came out and they were ready to play. They kept the ball away from us a lot in the first half. We were able to run the football, and I felt like the big play in the game was that fourth-down stop by our defense.”
Contrast that to Bielema’s postgame comments, which displayed a coach who knows his program is light-years away from where Malzahn’s is — made even harder to believe given that both are in their first season at the helm of SEC schools.
“I think that the part, as a head coach, is that you have to be so far ahead of where you are right now,” he said. “Recruiting, players, the program, there are so many positive things going on right now that don’t pop out to people that aren’t in the program every day. We’re learning how to run the football better, learning how to do certain things in the passing game. It’s not what everybody wants to hear — it’s baby steps —and I’d much rather be sprinting. But we’re walking.”
Let the entirety of that long quote sink in.
Call it making excuses if you like, but I find it refreshing that Bielema didn’t spin it too favorably. There are problems in his program. They’re trying to fix them and set themselves up better for the future. It’s going to take time, with more growing pains along the way.
Then again, those candid thoughts do nothing to ease the frustrations of a Razorback fan base that only had to look across the field Saturday to see a fellow first-year coach — and native son, no less — working wonders.
Now let’s hand out some grades:
The Tigers didn’t come close to matching their three previous outings (they of the 600-plus yards) in terms of total offense. That’s not a knock on the unit, though. Instead, it’s merely a function of how Saturday’s contest played out, with Arkansas dominating in time of possession (34:14 to 25:46) and offensive plays from scrimmage (74 to 55). But the Tigers made the most of their limited possessions — especially junior running back Tre Mason, who set career-highs in touchdowns (four) and carries (32) on his way to rushing for 168 yards.
Coming into the game, Auburn knew Arkansas was going to run the ball. Heck, it’s not like the Razorbacks know how to pass the ball, as its SEC-worst 149.9 yards per game attest. Despite the one-dimensionality of the Arkansas offense, the visitors had little luck plugging running lanes. Yes, the Tigers once again stepped up when it counted — coming up with an interception in the red zone as well as a pair of stops at the 1-yard line in a goal-to-go situation in the second quarter — to keep points off the board. One has to wonder, however, how much longer the Tigers can continue to tempt fate when it comes to giving up large chunks of yardage but ultimately coming away unscathed.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
If Auburn had somehow managed to come-from-ahead and lose after jumping out to a 28-3 lead, a special teams play would have been viewed as the key moment: Korliss Marshall’s 87-yard kick return immediately following Sammie Coates’ 88-yard touchdown reception. Two plays later, the Razorbacks were in the end zone. Arkansas then forced a three-and-out and scored once more to cut Auburn’s advantage to 28-17. Put it this way: If Nick Marshall hadn’t recovered his own fumble in the fourth quarter, the Tigers’ kickoff coverage unit might be wearing a “scapegoat” tag around its neck for allowing the Razorbacks to swing the momentum in their favor. On the bright side of things for Auburn’s special teams, Steven Clark didn’t allow a return on any of his four punts, while fellow senior Cody Parkey boomed five of his six kickoffs for touchbacks.
It wasn’t a dominant performance by any stretch of the imagination. But the Tigers did enough to keep their incredible turnaround season humming along and pick up their fifth straight victory.
One last thing: Don’t believe anything Malzahn said about this victory being solely about “getting our eighth win.” There’s a reason he admitting knowing he hadn’t won at Razorback Stadium as a visiting coach prior to Saturday; his past with the Razorbacks and the home state ties were too much for even Malzahn to put aside. (And don’t think for a second that all the verbal sparring that’s gone on between he and Bielema since the summer didn’t add a little extra incentive, too.)