Arkansas football’s place on the SEC West food chain was in question for about a half Saturday afternoon, but it turns out it was just playing with its food.
With the flip of a switch — or, rather, the block of a kick — the Razorbacks turned it on and used a dominant third quarter to cruise to a 41-27 win over Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, snapping a six-game skid against the spiraling Tigers.
“I’m really proud of our kids, how they competed, especially proud of winning the third quarter,” Pittman said. “We went out and won it 14-0 and basically, at that point, I’m not saying the game was over, but we were in control of the football game.”
It was a four-point game at halftime, but by shutting out Auburn and scoring a pair of touchdowns, Arkansas was able to put things on cruise control the rest of the way.
The Razorbacks actually led by 25 midway through the fourth quarter, which would have been their largest margin of victory in an SEC game since beating Missouri by that margin to end the 2015 season.
Had Arkansas kept Auburn from scoring with four seconds left on the clock, it would have been its largest SEC road win since 2010. Even with that touchdown, it was their largest such win since winning 58-42 at Mississippi State six years ago.
“We had made a big emphasis on that at practice,” Pittman said. “I don’t know if that helps us or not, but we certainly think it does. … We challenged them at halftime, that’s what has to happen. Fortunately, it happened.”
Sluggish Start for Arkansas Football
Playing as an SEC road favorite for just the second time in five years, Arkansas football couldn’t have gotten off to a much worse start than it did Saturday.
A sack and tackle for loss put the Razorbacks behind the sticks on the first plays of their first two possessions, which ended with a shanked 27-yard punt and lost fumble.
About the only thing Arkansas had going for it was the fact that its defense limited Auburn to a pair of field goal attempts — only one of which was successful — after those drives, despite starting both of them around midfield.
The offense eventually got things going and jumped out to a 14-3 lead, but it was a dud of a finish to the half for Arkansas.
The Razorbacks squandered a first-and-goal from the 9 after a long completion to Matt Landers, settling for a field goal, and then couldn’t do anything with great field position in a two-minute situation. Making matters worse, they let the Tigers march down the field and get a field goal in the closing seconds of the half to pull within 17-13.
Head coach Sam Pittman’s frustration was evident in his quick halftime interview on Arkansas’ radio broadcast.
“We’ve got to get our mojo back a little bit on defense,” Pittman said. “Offensively we’re killing ourselves with penalties and the turnover. We’ve got to play better football. If we do that, we’ll win. But we’ve got to find a way to play better football.”
The Turning Point
With all of the momentum and the ball to start the second half, Auburn football had an excellent chance to take the lead after halftime.
The Tigers converted third downs of 9, 1 and 12 yards to march inside the 30 before Jordan Domineck finally made the play to get the defense off the field. The Georgia Tech transfer tripped up Robby Ashford for his first sack since Week 3.
The play backed Auburn up seven yards and forced Anders Carlson to try a 52-yard field goal. It didn’t have a chance, and Landon Jackson and Isaiah Nichols each appeared to get a piece of it.
It was the first field goal blocked by the Razorbacks since notching one against Eastern Illinois in the 2018 opener and their first against an FBS team since Dan Skipper’s clutch block that forced overtime at TCU in 2016.
“I think he kicked it low, to be honest with you,” Pittman said. “I’d like to give credit to a lot of people, but I think he kicked it low. I’ll have to look. I do think we had some good penetration on it, but it was blocked up the middle, I believe, from what I saw and I think he kicked it low.”
Pittman also described it as as “big, big part of the game,” which may have been an understatement. Instead of making it a one-point game, Arkansas maintained its four-point lead and swung momentum back in its favor.
Establishing the Run
One thing Sam Pittman mentioned at halftime in his SEC Network interview was that Arkansas needed to get back to doing what it does best — running the ball. The Razorbacks had only 70 rushing yards in the first half, but nearly tripled that in the second half.
Arkansas picked up 71.3 percent of its first-half yards through the air, but flipped that to 78.3 percent on the ground after halftime, which quarterback KJ Jefferson said was the plan.
“We kind of got away from it in the first half, with throwing the ball,” Jefferson said. “We just wanted to get back to the basics and knowing we can ground and pound and win the game by running the ball and establishing the run. That’s what the second-half adjustment was.”
That was evident from the jump. After blocking the field goal, Arkansas got runs of 15, 12 and 7 yards by Rocket Sanders — as well as a nice back-shoulder throw to Matt Landers that picked up 18 yards — to get into the red zone, where Jefferson capped the drive with an 11-yard touchdown strike to Jadon Haselwood.
A 76-yard run by Sanders, following a punt that pinned the Razorbacks at the 6, set up a 2-yard run on a direct snap to Rashod Dubinion. The score effectively took the wind out of Auburn’s sails.
“I think we wore them down, to be honest with you,” Pittman said. “Our guys are in great shape up front. They play well together once they figure out what guys are doing against them.
“And we went back to our bread and butter — we went back to inside-outside zone, ran a little bit of counter against them, but we went with what we do. Our backs got lathered up a little bit and seemed to break a few more tackles.”
Meanwhile, the Razorbacks’ defense did just enough to keep Auburn off the scoreboard until a pair of tremendous catches by the Tigers helped them score with 5:28 remaining.
With backups in the game, Auburn connected on another long pass play before scoring in the game’s closing seconds to make the margin closer than the game actually felt.
“We came out, we knew what they were doing,” linebacker Bumper Pool said. “We did well with it. Kind of let a few points slip in the first half, (but) came back out firing.”
What it Means for Arkansas Football
As evidenced by the point spread, Auburn has not had a great season. Head coach Bryan Harsin’s seat is scorching hot, as Saturday marked the Tigers’ fourth straight loss.
The win likely won’t move the needle much from a national perspective, but that doesn’t diminish how important the win was to Arkansas coach Sam Pittman.
“I know they haven’t won as many games as they have in the past, but they’ve played teams close,” Pittman said. “They’ve had some good games with some good football programs. To come in here (and win), it means everything. It means a lot.”
Making it even sweeter is the fact the Razorbacks hadn’t won at Jordan-Hare Stadium since 2012, when John L. Smith picked up one of his only two SEC wins.
That streak should have ended the last time they were down there, but an officiating fiasco that even SEC Network anchors openly criticized allowed Auburn to kick the game-winning field goal with 7 seconds left — a loss that is still fresh on the players’ minds.
“I remember being in here two years ago just absolutely shattered,” Pool said. “Whenever you’re in the moment, you don’t think that you’ll have another opportunity, but to be able to come back, get the win how we did it — a team win, everyone played their role perfectly — just love this team.”
The Razorbacks also improved to 5-3 with the win, matching their record at this point last year. That season ended with tight wins over Mississippi State and LSU, a close loss at Alabama and a win over Missouri.
This year, Arkansas has three straight home games before ending the season on the road for the Battle Line Rivalry on Black Friday. Depending on whether or not Liberty sneaks into the top 25 this week or not, those three home opponents might all be ranked, but they’re in Fayetteville, where Arkansas has played just once in the previous six weeks.
“The difference is obviously different opponents, and the other thing is we have three of our next four games at home,” Pittman said. “Our fans will be rocking that place. They will, next week being homecoming, and we have an opportunity to have a great week and that would give us an opportunity to get bowl eligible and that’s a big, big deal.”
Putting the Tigers away like they did Saturday was also encouraging because the Razorbacks haven’t always done that to inferior opponents — especially on the road.
Even this season, they were probably better than Texas A&M, but returned home with a disappointing 23-21 loss. Against Auburn, Arkansas didn’t leave things up to a fluky last-minute field goal or put the game in the hands of the officials.
It simply proved it was the better team with its play on the field.
“Today I just felt like we were ready, we were prepared and I felt like we had the best team and I felt like we should win,” Pittman said. “That’s no disrespect to anybody, to Auburn or anybody, but I felt like we had the best team and we should win and certainly we did.”
Check out highlights from Arkansas’ impressive win over Auburn:
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