Report card: Auburn returns to its good old ways by pounding Arkansas
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — On Saturday night, Auburn football looked like the team it’s been for the majority of its SEC schedule — explosive on offense, efficient on defense, and relentless against lesser-quality competition.
Arkansas felt the full brunt of that, especially in the second half of Auburn’s 52-20 road win in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks hung around early, but a fantastic third quarter turned what would’ve been more frustrations for Auburn’s fan base into a much-needed return to form.
Gus Malzahn’s team looked like the one that rocketed up to the top 10 earlier this season. While there was still room for improvement heading into a bye week, the Tigers put together a complete performance they can be proud of against a desperate host at rock bottom.
Let’s recap what Auburn brought to the table Saturday against Arkansas with the weekly SEC Country report card. As always, the rubric calls for an A-plus on a nearly flawless performance, C for an average game, and F for a complete failure.
It wasn’t the cleanest game from Jarrett Stidham, but it was mighty effective. He went 19-for-28 through the air and had another 200-yard performance. While he threw an interception that could’ve become a total disaster, Stidham delivered a few perfect passes, including a third-down conversion to Darius Slayton in the huge third quarter. He also kept the ball on zone reads, which included an early touchdown run.
When Malik Willis came into the game, he was able to showcase his dynamic rushing skills yet again. He went 48 yards on his first snap and added 14 more later in the drive. Willis also found the end zone on a fly sweep to Devan Barrett. Getting that experience on the road in an SEC game will be vital for Willis, and it paired well with an improved performance from Stidham and the passing attack as a whole.
Running backs: A
Save for an ultra-close goal line stand and a couple of busted plays, Kerryon Johnson had a solid night against Arkansas and found the end zone once more. But the real story of the evening was Kamryn Pettway, who averaged 8.2 yards per carry and scored 3 touchdowns in his first big game against a Power 5 opponent in a year.
Pettway ran harder, bounced off a few defenders and got back into his groove with the trio of touchdowns. While he’s still not 100 percent, he looked more like what Auburn got from him last year. If he can keep this up with Johnson, watch out.
Wide receivers: A-minus
Slayton missed a few catchable balls, and Will Hastings wasn’t very effective in a return to his home state. The positives, though, definitely outweighed the negatives for this unit. Ryan Davis got back to his normal usage rate, catching 8 balls for 63 yards and making some impressive plays after the grabs. He also had Auburn’s longest play of the game — a touchdown pass to Slayton.
Auburn went to its receivers more frequently than it did last week against LSU, and they were able to showcase some of their skills on much-needed short and intermediate routes. The Tigers will still want more out of a few players, including Nate Craig-Myers, so this unit is still a work in progress heading into the bye week.
Offensive line: A
Stidham was never sacked, and Auburn only allowed two of its 77 plays to be stopped behind the line of scrimmage. Combine that with 345 rushing yards on 47 carries, and you’ve got the formula for a fantastic night on the offensive line. Without Casey Dunn and Mike Horton, this unit produced above expectations.
Auburn’s only real negative on the offensive line was yet another injury, this time to right tackle Darius James in the fourth quarter. While X-rays came back negative for James, that’s another blow to a unit that has to keep changing its looks. The leadership of Austin Golson and Braden Smith will be key down the stretch.
Defensive line: A-plus
Arkansas quarterback Cole Kelley didn’t have much time to do anything Saturday night against Auburn. The Tigers had 6 sacks, and all but one of them came from the defensive line. Jeff Holland had another standout performance in a huge junior season, as he came up with 1.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. Nick Coe and Dontavius Russell each had 6 tackles and made impressive plays all around the pocket.
Auburn’s great work on the defensive line didn’t just stop with the first team, either. Freshmen Big Kat Bryant and T.D. Moultry were involved in sacks, and Moultry got on the field earlier than expected. That constant pressure was outstanding for this defensive line, especially after a couple of quiet weeks in the stat sheets.
Auburn’s linebackers felt closer to a full squad again Saturday night as Tre’ Williams came back from injury. Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams both shook off minor injuries from last week to contribute in big ways. Darrell Williams tied for the team lead in tackles and came up with a big fumble recovery on special teams.
Arkansas was able to gash Auburn’s defense for big plays a few times due to some misfits and a couple of lapses in communication. But Arkansas averaged less than 5 yards per snap, and the linebackers played a big part in that.
As a whole, the Auburn secondary can feel like it did a good job, especially considering it was down two starters — safety Tray Matthews and cornerback Javaris Davis. Kelley only threw for 163 yards, but some of them came on big plays in which the secondary left him with big pockets.
There were bright spots, though. Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis each came up with crucial pass breakups, Stephen Roberts slammed the door on a couple of Arkansas drives, and Jordyn Peters delivered in a big spot as a freshman with key snaps at dime back. While the big plays still need to be cut down for this unit, it was a good response after a couple of disappointing weeks by its standards.
Special teams: C-minus
Williams made something big happen on an Auburn punt, but the Tigers nearly had a disaster of their own on the first punt of the game. The kick coverage team had its own major mishap when Arkansas ran one back for 100 yards and a touchdown. Auburn’s own kicker and punter delivered decently enough. However, this unit needs some bye week work after back-to-back games of allowing long touchdowns.
Auburn’s coaching staff had some odd decisions in the first half — the Tigers accepted a holding penalty instead of a first-down sack only to see Arkansas convert quickly, and they also called timeout late in the second quarter before a field goal, but didn’t do anything with the ball. Those moves weren’t damaging, ultimately, in a 32-point win.
Malzahn said he stressed the importance of avoiding its usual third-quarter slump, and his team responded with a 28-point outburst. The offensive play calling was balanced and explosive, taking full advantage of a bad Arkansas team. Defensively, Auburn’s first-teamers held their opponents out of the end zone again. Quirks aside, this was exactly what this staff needed.