Will Auburn football come out of its second-half shell against Arkansas?
Leading up to kickoff Saturday, we’ll be tackling the best question from Auburn fans. Go here to see all of our previous answers.
AUBURN, Ala. — Second halves have been a tough subject for Gus Malzahn and Auburn football the last couple of weeks.
The Tigers were shut out after halftime for the third time in their last five losses last Saturday in a meltdown loss at LSU. The Saturday before that, Auburn was outscored 20-9 by struggling Ole Miss after halftime.
Auburn still beat Ole Miss by three touchdowns, but the performance left fans with a bad taste in their mouths. That feeling continued into Baton Rouge, when Auburn got off to a hot start and cooled off at a more volatile rate against LSU.
“We’ve got to correct that, and that’s my responsibility,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “We’ve got to do better in the second half, especially when we have leads. … We’ve got to do better, and we’ve got a plan to do that. That’s got to happen.”
This Saturday, Auburn will take on an Arkansas squad that hasn’t beaten a Power 5 team this season and has been outscored 89-31 in the last two weekends. Auburn is a 15.5-point favorite in Fayetteville, and the potential is there for the Tigers to get back to the form of their three straight SEC wins before the LSU loss.
But as reader Jeff R. asks this week, there is uncertainty that Auburn can do that after halftime if the opportunity presents itself:
Do you think Gus will take his foot off the gas against Arkansas? Auburn could really run it up this weekend, but I see him doing the same thing as the Ole Miss game.
Auburn has gone into a shell after halftime several times this season. But if there’s a team Malzahn could break out of it against, it’s probably Arkansas. It won’t be hard to find motivation in this matchup.
“It’s a big emotion [against Arkansas],” Auburn safety Stephen Roberts said this week. “They’re a physical team who likes to run the ball a lot. We’ve got to be physical, as well. That’s one thing both teams bring to the table. I think that’s going to be a factor that night. The most physical team wins.”
The series history between Malzahn and Arkansas says a lot. In 2013, Auburn scored 21 points in the second half after a slow start in Fayetteville. In 2014, Auburn outscored Arkansas 24-0 after halftime. After losing in a high-scoring, four-overtime game in 2015, Auburn doubled its halftime score on Arkansas and routed the Razorbacks 56-3 in 2016.
In the 2016 contest, tempers flared between Auburn and Arkansas in the pregame. The two teams were involved in a scuffle near Auburn’s midfield logo at Jordan-Hare Stadium when the Tigers usually circle it for their post-Tiger Walk prayer.
“We just thought it was disrespect,” offensive lineman Austin Golson said after Auburn’s 56-3 win. “We’ve never gone to anybody else’s home field and stepped on (their logo) like that while they were out there. That added a little fuel to our fire.”
The bad blood between Auburn and Arkansas goes beyond that incident. Malzahn, a native of Arkansas who once was a walk-on receiver and later an assistant coach for the Razorbacks, got into a war of words with coach Bret Bielema early in their respective tenures.
The two went back and forth about up-tempo offenses and player safety at SEC Media Days in 2013. Bielema complained about Auburn’s film exchange not featuring the swinging gate extra-point formation before their matchup that season. In 2015, Bielema said he “hated” Auburn at a fan event.
Between all that and the 2016 scuffle, there seems to be a lot bubbling under the surface in this matchup. But Malzahn talked that narrative down this week.
“I get along great with Bret and have a lot of respect for him as a coach and a person,” Malzahn said. “I know early on there was some uncomfortable things. But I really don’t feel that way anymore. They’re ultra-competitive and they’re wanting to beat us, and we’re ultra-competitive and we’re wanting to beat them.”
Although Malzahn downplays the nature of the rivalry between his team and his home state’s flagship school, the scoreboard doesn’t lie. A lot of his bigger second halves in SEC play have come against Arkansas.
That motivation will also coincide with a greater need to turn it around Saturday in Fayetteville. Malzahn and Auburn heard all week about how bad they’ve been in second halves in the last couple of seasons.
Malzahn should make it a point to keep the hammer down if Auburn gets off to a good start against Arkansas, a team that is more beat up and downtrodden than his own at this point in the season.
Besides, the Razorbacks have also had issues after halftime — their defense ranks No. 94 in the FBS in fourth quarter S&P+, a ratings system that tracks efficiency and per-play success.
Frustrations are high on the Plains again after what happened against LSU. For the fourth week in a row, Auburn raced out to a strong start against a lower quality SEC opponent. But the offense fell flat with an ultra-conservative, rigid game plan after halftime.
“I feel like we can put up points against anyone,” Auburn receiver Nate Craig-Myers said this week. “I feel like we just let [LSU] off the hook.”
Auburn can’t afford to let Arkansas off the hook this weekend, even if it comes out of Fayetteville with a win. Malzahn said he’s responsible for Auburn’s improvement — or lack thereof — in second halves. A return home could provide the perfect opportunity for the fifth-year coach to make that statement.
“When we get leads in the second half, we can’t let that happen again,” Malzahn said. “I can’t let that happen again. We’ve got to do better. I’ve got to do better in those type scenarios. … We’ve got to put that loss behind us and we’ve got to improve. We’re going to do that — there’s no doubt in my mind we will.”