Auburn’s vanilla gameplan left plenty to the imagination during a 35-17 win at Arkansas.
The Tigers ran the ball well, but otherwise simply took advantage of mistakes and backfired calls in improving to 8-1 on the season.
The blandness of Auburn’s strategy flew directly in contrast with the intrigue surrounding the game’s coaches.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema exchanged words through the media during SEC Media Days, disagreeing on fundamental philosophy of up-tempo offenses.
Their publicized feud intensified last week when Bielema publicly accused Auburn of sending incomplete film that didn’t show a swinging gate the Tigers utilized on their first extra point against Florida Atlantic.
RB Tre Mason ran with an attitude, cashing in 32 carries for 168 yards and 4 TDs. Auburn finished with 223 rush yards – just one yard more than Arkansas.
Malzahn said after the game that he planned to be run-heavy because he didn’t know if QB Nick Marshall would play. Marshall missed the last three quarters of the win over Florida Atlantic last week with an injury to his throwing shoulder. Malzahn listed him as questionable all week, though most suspected he would play.
Judging by Malzahn’s gameplan, perhaps his status was more in doubt than initially thought.
Then again, maybe Malzahn was simply confident that his team could run right over the Razorbacks.
Either way, the first-year coach dialed up 44 run plays compared to 10 passes.
Arkansas seemingly exposed Auburn defensively. The Razorbacks, one of the few downhill, traditional-set running teams in the SEC, pounded the ball at the visitors for 222 yards. RBs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins combined for 196 yards on 33 attempts.
The Razorbacks also found ways to prolong drives – converting on 9 of 16 third downs.
However, Arkansas QB Brandon Allen suffered a first-quarter injury to his leg. He missed the end of the first series and all of the second.
QB2 AJ Derby showed again he isn’t SEC-ready.
The junior had a tipped pass intercepted to halt the first series and fumbled the snap exchange to set up the Tigers’ first score.
In line with Bielema’s methodical, run-heavy philosophy, Arkansas controlled time of possession – especially in the first half when it had the ball for nearly 20 minutes.
However, Auburn scored touchdowns following Derby’s first fumble and a failed onside kick to lead 14-3 at halftime.
Auburn scored touchdowns on its first two possessions of the second half as well to claim a commanding lead. The second of the scores came on one of Marshall’s eight passes. WR Sammie Coates, who has emerged as easily Auburn’s best deep-threat, made a great adjustment on Marshall’s underthrown long pass. Coates hauled in the pass and then hurdled over a stumbling defender attempting to recover on his way to an 88-yard TD reception.
Arkansas made it interesting on the first play of the fourth quarter – following its own swinging gate play – pulling to within 11. Mason responded again, though, with a 12-yard run that iced the game.
Ironically, in the battle of the coaches, Malzahn held back a significant portion of his playbook while Bielema let it all hang out.
Saturday’s game, though, served as a reminder that football is often more about the talent on the field than it is the X’s and O’s.
Auburn executed better and, as a result, claimed a comfortable win in Fayetteville.
When Auburn coach Gus Malzahn defended his up-tempo offense during SEC Media Days against critics such as Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, one of his points attacked teams faking injuries.
So what, exactly, happened in the closing seconds of the third quarter?
Before examining, let’s set the scene. Bielema’s team had just converted a fourth down on a swinging gate play. There’s probably no coincidence that a swinging gate play Auburn utilized last week on its first extra point against Florida Atlantic served as the focal point of the week’s controversy.
For those unfamiliar, Arkansas had its bye week last week, allowing Bielema to watch the television feed of Auburn’s contest with Florida Atlantic. On the Tigers’ first extra-point try, they came out in a swinging-gate formation before lining up for a routine extra point.
Only the film Auburn exchanged failed to include the swinging gate, Bielema said publicly early last week.
Malzahn didn’t outright deny the claim, saying only that Auburn would always do things with integrity.
The accusation only further fueled a war between Bielema and Malzahn that at least exists in the media.
Fast-forward to Saturday when, trailing by 18 at the end of the third quarter, Bielema dialed up a swinging-gate play of his own. Just as with Auburn’s extra-point tries, Arkansas’ kicking personnel took the field but with an off-centered set. Rather than calling the audible to kick the field goal, Arkansas ran its play. It worked. Brian Buehner connected for a 7-yard pass to Austin Tate for a first down at the Auburn 1-yard line.
The play occurred in the closing seconds of the quarter. Auburn LB Anthony Swain was involved in the pursuit and walked, apparently OK, toward the middle of the field.
Arkansas decided to go hurry-up, trying to catch the Tigers off-guard. The strategy apparently worked.
Before the Razorbacks could snap the ball, Swain fell to the turf clutching his knee and effectively getting a timeout.
Bielema, believing the “injury” to be gamesmanship, became irate with the officials about the apparent tactic.
We’re not here to pass judgment on whether someone fakes an injury or not. So… you be the judge:
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For what it’s worth, ESPNU said during its college football highlight show that Swain did not return to the game and he was shown riding an exercise bike after the injury. Teammates said he was “hobbling” in the locker room.
Malzahn said after the game “we don’t tell our kids to fake.”
Fake injury or not, the war in the media between Bielema and Malzahn isn’t going anywhere.
Bailing on Arkansas coach Bret Bielema would be easy right now.
His team has lost six consecutive games and the Razorbacks yet to defeat a BCS conference team. Plus Arkansas hasn’t even competed in losses to Florida, South Carolina and Alabama and lost by at least two scores at home to Auburn and Texas A&M.
However, there is reason for optimism in Fayetteville.
Saturday’s 35-17 loss to Auburn doesn’t tell the full story. On numerous occasions, the passing game faltered in key moments, failing to pick up big first downs.
QB Brandon Allen gives the Razorbacks their best chance to win, but he won’t receive many – if any – all-conference votes even if the votes go six- or seven-deep.
There were several plays in which a great throw or catch would have amounted into a potentially game-changing play. Instead, Arkansas beat itself at times.
Case-in-point: On a third-and-3 from the Auburn 9-yard line, Allen tried to hit wide-open TE Hunter Henry – a talented freshman. Instead, Henry got his hands on the ball but dropped it.
The play didn’t hurt Arkansas too much since it directly preceded the swinging gate play. But it was an example of a mistake that could have resulted in settling for a field goal rather than getting a touchdown.
Allen missed on long passes to WRs Javontee Herndon (fourth quarter) and Jeremy Sprinkle (third quarter). Both times, the receivers were wide open with coverage such that even a bad throw could have gone for a big gain. Instead, Allen missed badly in both cases.
Bielema has done a great job giving the Razorbacks a hard-nosed run game – as just about everyone who watched his teams at Wisconsin knew he would.
Once he has the passing game to complement RB Alex Collins – especially in the play-action game – Arkansas will be another scary SEC West team.