FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Auburn football was already up by 25 points when it dialed up the eye-opener. After recovering the first of two Arkansas quarterback Cole Kelley fumbles in the third quarter, Gus Malzahn and his offensive staff made a statement.
On first down, Kerryon Johnson took a sweep and reversed it to wide receiver Ryan Davis. The former high school quarterback then looked up field and delivered a dime on the run to Darius Slayton.
The 62-yard touchdown pass put Auburn by more than 30 points in the third quarter. It also ensured the Tigers had three straight touchdowns on their first three drives after halftime.
The second-half shell Auburn crawled into in the second half of a rout against Ole Miss and a collapse at LSU over the last two weeks didn’t make the trip to Fayetteville.
“We made some explosive plays, and we got some tempo,” Malzahn said after the game, adding he thought this was “exactly” what Auburn’s offense needed. “Any time you can get the tempo running … when that happens, it really opens up everything.”
Auburn finished with 28 third-quarter points — more than triple the amount of second-half points they scored in the last two games. That amount alone tied a second-half high for Auburn this season.
Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey had gone ultra-conservative in second halves several times this season. The Arkansas game provided a golden opportunity for that to change, and the Tigers took it.
“We emphasized it big time,” Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham said after the game. “Obviously last week was very disappointing. But even in our meeting today, Coach Lindsey said our emphasis needs to be coming out in the second half and finishing what we started. I thought we did a good job.”
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) October 22, 2017
Auburn’s offense didn’t look like the ones that slumped after halftime this season. The Tigers attempted five passes on the first drive, which was a dramatic shift from the strategy that featured 17 straight first-down runs against LSU.
Granted, Arkansas hasn’t beaten a Power 5 team this season and was blown out over the last two weeks by South Carolina and Alabama.
But this was a second half Auburn needed, in more ways than one. Arkansas was hanging around at halftime, down 17-6. Auburn’s offense couldn’t find consistency in the first half, showing sparks but little fire.
The Tigers used the halftime break to fan the flames and do something different.
“That’s exactly what we talked about doing,” Malzahn said. “We talked about coming out with our foot on the gas.”
Auburn’s offense was a full-on inferno in the third quarter, and it smoked out most of the Arkansas fans still in Razorback Stadium. Junior running back Kamryn Pettway, who had 18 rushing yards over an injury-hampered last four weeks, had his best game against a Power 5 opponent in a year.
“It was good to get Pettway out there,” Malzahn said. “You could tell he’s getting closer to 100 percent. He really ran hard.”
By the time the Tigers got the ball in the fourth quarter, they were able to put freshman quarterback Malik Willis into the game.
Willis was able to lead Auburn right down the field, too, against a demoralized Arkansas defense.
Malzahn wasn’t going to win over any frustrated Auburn fans with a blowout win over a bad Arkansas team. But one of his biggest issues at Auburn, regardless of opponent, wasn’t apparent in Fayetteville on Saturday night. The Tigers addressed the problem and took over after halftime.
“Honestly, everybody was really fired up,” Stidham said. “More fired up, I think, this game during halftime than any other game. Everybody was just juiced up and ready to go, so it was good.”
Auburn will still need to prove it can keep this up against a legitimate opponent, such as Texas A&M in two weeks.
Still, the Tigers got the momentum they needed before a brutal November. That could be the difference between a standard late-season slide and a salvaged campaign.
“We had a little adversity early,” Malzahn said. “Our guys hung in there. … We went in at halftime, and our message was to win the second half. And we had one of our best quarters, I think, of the year. I’m real proud of our team. This was a good win.”