AUBURN, Ala. — The same stat kept popping up everywhere after the game. During the postgame TV broadcast. On every Auburn or Arkansas sportswriter’s Twitter. In the comments made by virtually every Tigers player and coach made available following the 56-3 demolition of the Razorbacks.
Auburn 543, Arkansas 25.
The Tigers, without their leading rusher, dismantled their SEC West foe with whomever they opted to hand the ball, which consisted of a heavy dose from Kamryn Pettway, Stanton Truitt, Kam Martin, Eli Stove and both Auburn quarterbacks. And, for the most part, that 543 figure — the seventh-most in SEC history — was what people wanted to talk about, understandably.
But the 25 might be the more telling mark, at least for this Auburn team. The Tigers defense continues to be one of the most underrated, undermentioned units in college football right now. And, even Saturday, it managed to be outdone by its own offense.
“We feel like, as a unit, people still don’t respect our defense,” linebacker Deshaun Davis said. “So, I mean, every game, we just come out and try to play for our respect. … We knew nobody was going to respect us, even if we do it week after week. We’re going to keep playing football and keep making them respect us.”
Even in the domination, the discussion seemed to be more about “Arkansas’ offensive line is terrible” than “Auburn’s defensive line might be the best in the nation.” Those two comments aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. They both seemed true throughout the 53-point massacre.
But this Arkansas offense previously had been moving the ball on the ground well.
Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams III entered Saturday’s contest as the leading rusher in the SEC. He left the matchup in fourth, replaced by Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway at No. 1. Apparently that wasn’t lost on Auburn’s defenders during the week.
“It was drilled into us all week. He was No. 1. We were, as a defense, tired of hearing it,” Davis said. “I don’t know if Coach (Kevin) Steele was trying to play tricks on us or something, but they drilled all week that it was the best rushing team we were going to play, how good they were, what their numbers were.”
Williams finished with 13 carries for 22 yards. As a team, Arkansas averaged 0.8 yards per carry. The Razorbacks’ longest rush of the game went for 11 yards, by quarterback Austin Allen, in the first quarter.
Auburn walked into Jordan-Hare Stadium with the intention of embarrassing the Arkansas rushing attack. The Tigers got some extra fuel during a pregame confrontation at midfield.
Did they meet their own, hard-to-reach expectations?
“I think so personally. I mean only 25 rushing yards? I’ve never seen that, especially with me playing,” linebacker Tre’ Williams said.
Gus Malzahn gushed about the defensive unit afterward: “That’s just a wow thing,” he said, referring to the 25-yard allowance.
The run-stopping effort fed right into the Tigers game plan. They knew the Razorbacks would try to pound the rock behind their heavy offensive line. Conversely, Auburn knew that’s where its strengths lie. It gave the Tigers a chance to force Allen into passing situations without adequate protection.
When Davis began talking to reporters, he first wanted to credit the defensive line, which — despite its growing in-season hype — he still believes is flying under the radar. “11 TFLs (tackles for loss),” Davis kept repeating. Many of those came in the run game, but many of those disrupted Allen in a passing game that had no time to throw the ball.
Auburn hurried the passer 15 times — 7 by Carl Lawson alone.
Allen had no time to throw. Williams had no space to run. And Auburn’s defense took another step in establishing respect for its unit.
“That was one of the goals: to try to make them one-dimensional and try to get after the quarterback. Our guys up front in those passing situations did a super job,” Malzahn said. “Our defense, I can’t say enough about, and they’re improving every week.”