FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Auburn football wasn’t quite in the danger zone in the second quarter Saturday night against Arkansas, but it was far from comfortable.
With a 10-3 lead over a struggling Arkansas team, the Tigers turned over the ball on downs after Kerryon Johnson was stuffed outside the goal line on fourth down. On its next drive, quarterback Jarrett Stidham threw an interception.
But those offensive frustrations didn’t faze Auburn’s defense, which forced a three-and-out on both of those ensuing possessions. At a time when Arkansas’ home support had reason to believe the Razorbacks could hang with the Tigers, the defense “put out those fires,” to borrow a phrase from its veteran defensive coordinator.
“That was one of the key things of the whole game,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the 52-20 win. “They got the three-and-outs right after that, because if we would’ve gave them any momentum right there, we would’ve gotten the crowd in it. That was huge right there.”
Arkansas did not convert a single third down in the entire first half, and it only finished with five for the whole game — two of them coming well after the first-team defense left the field for Auburn.
“That was one of the biggest things [defensive coordinator Kevin] Steele has been preaching to us,” junior linebacker Darrell Williams said. “After the first game, we kind of lost our edge on third downs. We pride ourselves on third down. … So it was on us at practice, they were really pressuring us on third downs to get that edge back. We need to get off the field on third downs.”
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Even with the late conversions in garbage time, Arkansas only converted 31.3 percent of its third downs against Auburn. That was the lowest mark for the Tigers since a Week 4 rout of Missouri.
“That was pretty big,” sophomore safety Daniel Thomas said. “That’s what Coach had been preaching on all week. We’ve got to get our edge back and get our third-down stops up. That’s what we did.”
Those crucial three-and-outs in the second quarter kept Arkansas on its back foot. After the second one, Auburn punted, but Williams landed on a fumble. The Tigers scored with the excellent field position and took a double-digit lead into the locker room.
Auburn’s defense didn’t crack under the mounting pressure caused by its own offense. Arkansas, known for its methodical, time-melting pace, only had one drive of longer than four minutes Saturday.
Auburn found a way to get the Razorbacks off the field quickly, buying enough time for the offense to explode in the second half.
“Whenever we face adversity, we get out there and just ball out and do what we do,” sophomore defensive tackle Derrick Brown said.
According to Williams, Auburn’s defense always had it inside to turn around the third-down issues that plagued it in key spots against LSU last weekend.
“We just had to cut off the hurting ourselves and the mistakes we made … we played with a chip on our shoulder,” Williams said. “We were coming off of last week with our corrections and played with an edge, like Coach Steele is always talking about.”
Auburn stuck to the message of getting its edge back all week — Thomas even said the phrase four times in less than three minutes after the game.
On Saturday night, Auburn rediscovered what made its defense so dominant through the first month of the season, and it’s not planning on letting it go anytime soon.
“We got our edge back,” Thomas said. “We’re just going to take momentum and keep going throughout the season.”