AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn entered its Week 8 matchup with Arkansas with some of the typical post-bye week doubts. Would the break recharge the Tigers, or would they be sluggish after that rest?
Gus Malzahn’s prized pupils definitely kept up their honor-roll form Saturday night by smashing Arkansas in a record-breaking 56-3 rout inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn dominated from the beginning by running all over the Razorbacks and taking complete control of the matchup at the line of scrimmage.
That all makes for a sparkling Sunday report card for the Tigers here on SEC Country. Let’s hand out some individual grades for each unit. Remember, A+ is a legendary performance, C is average and F is a complete failure.
But Auburn fans shouldn’t worry. The Tigers didn’t come anywhere close to those last two categories.
Sean White’s impressive completion percentage run took a small hit Saturday, as he went 6 for 11 through the air for 77 yards and 1 touchdown. Most of his incompletions were totally on him, including a few risky passes that could’ve been intercepted. He threw a surefire pick-six that was dropped when the game was still somewhat close.
But White got to show off his somewhat underrated wheels Saturday night. His 41-yard read-option sprint was almost four times as big as Arkansas’ longest run of the evening. He also kept the ball on a read in the third quarter to score a 1-yard touchdown — something he didn’t do much of earlier in the season. John Franklin III also added 39 yards on 7 carries on a night in which every Auburn player who carried the ball had great success.
Running Backs: A+
Only one other SEC team has ever rushed for at least 543 yards against a conference opponent — the 2013 Auburn Tigers, who did it against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. And Saturday night, Auburn looked a lot like those national championship game-bound Tigers who hammered away at opponents with a run-heavy strategy.
Auburn’s running backs — Kamryn Pettway, Kam Martin and Stanton Truitt — rushed for 350 yards on 47 carries and scored 4 touchdowns against an Arkansas run production that had zero answers. It didn’t matter that starting running back Kerryon Johnson was held out with an ankle injury. Auburn nearly averaged a first down every single time it carried the ball by running through, around and over Arkansas.
Wide Receivers: A
It’s hard to find many negatives with a receiving corps on the end of a passing attack that only put the ball in the air 12 times. Almost all of White’s incompletions were on him. An attempt to Tony Stevens over the middle of the field was the only semi-catchable ball that this unit didn’t haul. True freshman Nate Craig-Myers made a spectacular catch near the sidelines to move the chains in the third quarter.
Auburn’s receiving corps played a huge part in the success the Tigers had in the rushing department. And that goes beyond true freshman Eli Stove’s 78-yard opener on the ground. Auburn’s receivers were active in blocking on the perimeter the entire night, even on plays that didn’t really need a big block. Case in point: On the touchdown pass to Stanton Truitt in the second quarter, Stevens delivered a vicious, spring-loaded block on a defender a couple yards behind the play.
Offensive Line: A+
If you want to be technical, Auburn had one negative play Saturday night against Arkansas — a kneel at the end of the game. By the better definition of “negative plays,” Auburn had zero. An offensive line that was once responsible for the most opponent tackles for loss in college football through the first three weeks of the season kept everything in front of it against the Razorbacks.
Auburn didn’t allow a sack or a tackle for loss, and Arkansas was credited with just one quarterback hurry the entire game. Darius James at left tackle and Austin Golson at center looks like the permanent move for the Tigers. That makes plenty of sense. Auburn is looking a lot better offensively with the newer front five, and an absurd 9.5 yards per carry against Arkansas is the height of that progress.
Defensive Line: A+
Auburn dominated the point of attack on its defensive line as much as it did on the offensive line. The Tigers’ defensive line was responsible for 4 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hurries and a pair of pass deflections at the line of scrimmage. The sack and hurry count means Auburn affected the Arkansas passing game on almost half of its passing attempts Saturday night.
The elite front four also paved the way for a dominant performance against the run. Rawleigh Williams III led the SEC in rushing heading into this matchup, but he left with only 22 yards. Arkansas only had 25 yards on 31 carries, which is the program’s best against an SEC opponent since the 2005 Ole Miss game. These linemen constantly were in the Arkansas backfield and set the tone for a dominant rout.
While the defensive line stole the show with its stats Saturday night, several linebackers came up big to make impact plays near the line of scrimmage. Tre’ Williams, Deshaun Davis and Montavious Atkinson all recorded tackles for loss, and Darrell Williams was credited with a pair of quarterback hurries as an effective blitzing linebacker.
The Tigers had few tackling miscues at the position and played well with the adjustment to having more than just two linebackers on the field at the same time. Whenever the opponent’s longest run of the game is an 11-yard scramble on third-and-a-mile that turned into a takeaway, you know the linebacking corps did its job extremely well.
If there are any real negatives to take away from Auburn’s defensive performance against Arkansas, they can be found in the secondary. Even with the constant pressure in Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen’s face, he still completed more than half of his attempts for 187 yards. The Razorbacks had five “chunk plays” — ones of 15-plus yards — through the air against a slightly softer Auburn secondary.
But the unit delivered when it mattered most. Javaris Davis had a pass breakup and an incredible interception on one drive inside Auburn territory. There were no coverage busts or badly missed tackles, even with a shakeup in the safety spot due to Nick Ruffin’s “banged up” status.
Special Teams: A-
Daniel Carlson continued to do his thing with 8 automatic extra-point attempts and 7 touchbacks on 8 kickoffs. The lone return against him from the Razorbacks started deep inside their own end zone as a last-gasp effort of sorts. Kevin Phillips averaged 40 yards per punt and made one stop inside the Arkansas red zone.
Auburn didn’t get a chance to return a kickoff as Arkansas booted its only one of the game out-of-bounds to start the second quarter. The Tigers also had minimal work on returns from the strong leg of Arkansas punter Toby Baker, who had 10 punts in this one.
Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee continued his strong run of play-calling performances with an award-winning effort against his alma mater. His use of the speedy true freshman Stove — who only had two touches prior to Saturday night — from the opening play was huge. That sweep also opened up the wheel route to Truitt later in the game, so Auburn got two touchdowns off one setup. Lashlee kept things simple and let his offense do what it does best in a beatdown.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele found the right formula of personnel rotation and blitzes Saturday night to keep Arkansas under pressure for all four quarters. Both game plans were executed to absolute perfection, and Malzahn is on a much more comfortable seat for that. His decisions to give Lashlee play-calling duties and bring Steele on board are both paying off in a resurgent season.