Auburn football was beaten down in the middle eight by Arkansas on Saturday. Every negative characteristic of Auburn from the first half of the season was amplified. An opposing quarterback rolled over the Tigers. They couldn’t establish any run. They got in their own way. Big decisions came back to bite.
A 14-3 lead turned to a 17-14 deficit.
Then in a matter of minutes, the middle eight didn’t matter.
Auburn took the lead for good with a strip-sack in the end zone, stopped a pivotal fourth down then scored a 71-yard touchdown on the next play to regain a double-digit lead and swivel the momentum in a 38-23 win at No. 19 Arkansas (4-3, 1-3 SEC). Auburn (5-2, 2-1) has its first Bryan Harsin-coached win against a ranked team after holding on with a clock-eating drive in the fourth quarter.
Followed by a reputation of losing on the road, the junior quarterback now has two SEC road wins this season. He was 21-for-26 with 292 yards (to 10 receivers) and two touchdowns in one of his finest games. He also ran 23 yards for the clinching touchdown with 2:30 left.
He threw his best deep balls of the year. Harsin has a propensity for taking shots after a change of possession. Nix executed the plan perfectly after the turnover on downs in the third quarter; he lofted a 71-yard pass downfield to Demetris Robertson, who was covered but caught it in stride on his way to a touchdown to go ahead 28-17.
A 39-yard pass to Ja’Varrius Johnson capped Auburn’s flawless opening drive. The receivers stepped up too after seven drops vs. Georgia. There was only one this time. When Auburn got the ball up 31-23 with eight minutes left, a third-and-10 could have ended the drive quickly, but Nix fit a perfect ball to tight end Tyler Fromm, who made a nice catch over the middle. Nix also converted a third down with his legs on the drive.
The consensus before this game was that Arkansas presented Auburn with a golden opportunity to get the run game back on track. The Hogs were returning from Ole Miss, where they allowed an average of 6.6 yards on 49 carries. They allowed 4.9 per carry vs. Georgia and 5.3 vs. Texas AM.
But Auburn’s struggles continued. The best sequence was a Tank Bigsby 17-yard run in which he bounced outside and juked a defender, followed by a 1-yard Bigsby touchdown. That made it 14-3, but there were few other such moments. The Tigers finished the first half with 58 yards on 16 carries, then on their first series of the second half, Bigsby was blown up on a third-and-2. It was the low point of the middle eight.
The blocking for him was bad. Auburn was outgained on the ground, 232 yards to 137.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn (mostly) couldn’t get pressure. Arkansas quarterback K.J. Jefferson had all day to make decisions. He ran 18 times for 66 yards and had a strong connection passing to Treylon Burks: eight receptions for 103 yards.
The trenches went the Razorbacks’ way until the turning point, when Derick Hall sacked Jefferson in the end zone and Marcus Harris fell on the loose ball for the lead. The Hogs’ next possession ended in Auburn territory with Jefferson tripped up on fourth-and-3.
The expected fanfare Saturday was that Arkansas fans would not let Auburn forget how the game last season ended: with Bo Nix spiking the ball backward after a dropped snap and getting away with what could have been a clinching fumble recovery for Arkansas.
The referees in Fayetteville didn’t let Arkansas forget, either.
The Hogs are stuck in a never-ending cycle of controversial non-fumble calls against Auburn, apparently. As the Tigers tried to establish a ground game in the first quarter, they went three-and-out on three handoffs to Jarquez Hunter. On the third, he appeared to clearly fumble before he was down — Arkansas recovered — but a replay review bafflingly confirmed the call on the field: no fumble.
Moments earlier, the Arkansas student section had been taunting Auburn with chants that “Bo Nix fumbled.”
On another huge officiating call on the ground, Arkansas was spotted a few inches short on a fourth-and-1 in the red zone. Auburn also benefitted from a missed 53-yard field goal and a fourth-quarter pass interference call that sent the Arkansas faithful into a booing frenzy.
Arkansas had the SEC’s second-worst third-down success rate (37%) entering this game. But the Tigers got conservative with their third-down play calling on defense, and Jefferson made them pay.
Arkansas finished 10-for-19 with an average distance-to-go of 6.9 yards. The Hogs ran the ball eight times on third down and averaged 8.9 yards on those carries. Jefferson completed 6 of 9 passes.
A moment that loomed large over a close game was when Harsin called a timeout late in the first half before an Arkansas third-and-15. He wanted the ball back, but Jefferson found Burks to convert, and the drive ended in a last-second touchdown to make it 14-10.