AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn intended to start the second half of its season Saturday night moving the football on the ground against No. 17 Arkansas.
But the way in which the Tigers executed their game plan was enough to make even Heisman winner Bo Jackson smile and shake his head approvingly.
With their top rusher, Kerryon Johnson, watching from the sideline, Auburn produced the second-best rushing performance in school history, totaling 543 yards in a 56-3 rout of the Razorbacks.
“Offensively, our plan was we felt we needed to run the football. We were able to run the football, which was a big, big thing,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “I told our guys that was one of the more complete games that I think we’ve played since I got here.”
It was the Tigers’ fourth straight victory and largest margin of victory against a ranked opponent in Auburn history.
Statistically, the game trailed only the 2013 SEC Championship Game, in which the Tigers amassed 545 rushing yards in a win against Missouri on the way to the BCS national title game.
“It seemed like every play we called worked,” quarterback Sean White said. “That’s thanks to the O-line, the running backs and receivers. Everybody was contributing. It was a fun day to play football.”
The fun started early, too. On the Tigers’ first possession, true freshman Eli Stove (making his first career start) broke free for a 78-yard touchdown — the first time Auburn scored on its first offensive play since 2003 (Carnell Williams).
“That set the tone,” sophomore Stanton Truitt said. “Everybody got a chance to just relax and said we can play our game.”
From that point on, the scores came easily.
Sophomore running back Kamryn Pettway, who solidified his fourth consecutive 100-yard game before the end of the first half, flattened an Arkansas defensive back for a 9-yard score at the 8-minute mark.
Then Truitt, who switched from wide receiver to running back a few weeks prior, added another touchdown with less than a minute to go in the first quarter.
Truitt’s was one of the voices reassuring Johnson the team could handle the rushing load while he continued to heal a nagging ankle injury.
“I told Kerryon, ‘You don’t have to play, man. We’ll do it. We’ll do it for you. We’re your teammates, we love you, we’ll do it,’ ” Truitt said. “We got our opportunities tonight and we took advantage of it.”
In all, five different players had rushing scores and seven of Auburn’s eight touchdowns came on the ground.
White ran into the end zone in the third quarter and freshman Kam Martin added a late touchdown on a 51-yard run down the sideline. Though he didn’t score, backup quarterback John Franklin III added 39 yards to the rushing total.
The 6-foot, 240-pound Pettway, who ran for 169 yards and had a trio of scores in Auburn’s road win against Mississippi State, followed with another impressive performance, steamrolling Razorbacks for a career-high 192 yards and 2 touchdowns.
“It felt good for me, but I know a lot of it comes from our offensive line. I just had to pick up the slack with KJ not playing. … I saw that our offensive line was dominating at the point of attack. I had a lot of great gaps to run through. It feels good knowing that when me or KJ go down or come out, we’ve got just as good running backs that can go out there and get the job done.”
It was a complete game from Malzahn’s team, but especially from every member of the offense.
Senior offensive lineman Alex Kozan was proud of his line and was again impressed by the underclassmen who continued to carry the load.
“Tonight we definitely got after them,” Kozan said. “I was proud of the line and the backs and the receivers. Everybody played the best they could. We executed at a really high level. It speaks to our team. Everyone is unselfish. … They’re really starting to step into their roles. It’s great to see that anybody can step in and get yards.”
Coming into this season, the Auburn backfield was one of this team’s most concerning question marks.
Now, it’s one of the most important keys to success.