FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Auburn football didn’t install the play until the week of the Arkansas game. But the seeds of receiver Ryan Davis’ 62-yard touchdown pass to fellow wideout Darius Slayton were planted earlier than that.
Davis, a former high school quarterback who holds the career passing yardage record for all of Pinellas County, Fla., still works on his arm frequently with Slayton — even though Davis is a receiver on pace to break Auburn’s single-season reception record.
“Me and Darius, we always stick around and throw it to each other,” Davis said. “Just mess around and practice one-hand catches, stuff like that. We have a connection together.”
Auburn decided to test that connection in an explosive third quarter Saturday night against Arkansas. With the Tigers already up 25 points, Davis and Slayton engineered a one-play touchdown drive.
On the play, Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham handed the ball off to running back Kerryon Johnson on a buck sweep, a standard running play in the Tigers’ system.
Instead of running ahead for a block on the play side, Davis stutter-stepped and reversed into the backfield. When Johnson flipped the ball to him, Davis was already loading up for a deep ball to Slayton.
“My biggest concern was the end on the right side,” Davis said. “Was he going to get around the corner there? I knew I was probably going to have to throw it on the run. So I just saw Darius pop wide open, and I just hurried up and threw it before the field end got upfield.”
On his first pass in a competitive game since high school, Davis hit Slayton in stride.
“Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” Stidham said. “That kid has an arm. Nobody knows it. But it was a beautiful pass. … I told Ryan, just let it fly.”
The play call was a surprising one from Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. The Tigers were already up 25 points and have a tendency to play conservatively after halftime. No one on the first-team offense but Stidham had thrown a pass through the first seven games of the season.
However, Auburn knew it had a money play that it could use to keep its foot on the gas in a much-needed blowout win at Arkansas.
“That’s a play Chip has been working on for a while,” Malzahn said. “Just waiting for the right time to call it and, boy, he made a great throw. Darius ran a good route. We set it up, we ran the reverse early, and we were real successful in that reverse. We knew if we made the pass, we’d be open.”
Auburn’s longest play of the night was set up by another explosive play — a 45-yard reverse run from Eli Stove in the second quarter.
The Tigers pulled off the initial tweak to the buck sweep by reversing it to Stove. Arkansas overplayed the sweep, giving Stove plenty of move to run a long way.
On Stove’s run, Slayton cut toward the middle of the field, seeking out a player in the second level to block.
On the touchdown pass, Auburn preyed on two aspects of Arkansas’ defense. First, the Razorbacks stayed at home on the initial buck sweep, staying more balanced for the reverse.
That included Slayton’s matchup at cornerback. Slayton’s man looked into the backfield after the Auburn receiver ran his initial cut inside, appearing to set up another block. That’s when Slayton turned it into a corner route and 6 points.
At that point, all that was left was for Davis and Slayton to do what they’ve done over and over again on their own.
“He’s a fast guy, so I knew I just have to get it into his hands let him do the rest of the work,” Davis said. “It worked out perfectly how we planned out and how we saw it happen in practice.”
The touchdown was an easy pitch-and-catch once Arkansas’ defense bit on the reverse. The toughest part might have come before the play, when the sideline was buzzing after Lindsey and Malzahn dialed it up.
“I was just trying to contain excitement and not trying to give it away,” Slayton said. “Act like it’s a regular play and go out there and execute.”
It was an exciting moment for the entire Auburn offense, which came out in the second half with a point to prove.
But the biggest joy radiated off of Davis, a former star quarterback who got another chance to show off his arm in a game. He said the pass came “second nature” to him, especially considering he had his favorite pre- and post-practice partner on the other end of it.
“For me, it felt good throwing one,” Davis said. “I just haven’t done it in so long. Just to do it in college — it really hasn’t even soaked in yet. … It’s just crazy how it happened. Me and Darius, we always throw around a football to mess around. But to get an opportunity to do it in a game, it was just exciting.”