Observations: Auburn 48, Arkansas 10
Saturday was a swift reminder: When these Tigers have their act together, they can beat the Razorbacks like nobody's business.
QB Payton Thorne (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — As Auburn went through warmups before its game against Arkansas on Saturday, one Tiger looked up at the not-anywhere-close-to-full stands in Razorback Stadium and made an observation.
“Man, 45 minutes until kickoff, and it looks like this?” the player said. “Jordan-Hare would be packed out.”
But the hog-callers in the seats were still loud, and they still had something to cheer for in what has been a disappointing 2023 season. After Arkansas fired its offensive coordinator and beat Florida on the road in overtime last week, the Razorbacks still had a shot at making a bowl game if they won out.
Away from home in the SEC, it was important for Auburn to take what was left of the crowd out of it.
So Auburn opened with the ball and walked down the field for a 6-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by quarterback Payton Thorne trucking an Arkansas defender in the end zone.
Then, after the Arkansas offense went 3-and-out, Keionte Scott returned a punt 78 yards for the Tigers’ first touchdown in that category since 2014.
Arkansas went 3-and-out again. Auburn responded with another 6-play touchdown drive that ended with Thorne finding tight end Rivaldo Fairweather on a flare screen for another tackle-breaking big play.
In less than nine full minutes of game time, Auburn was up 21-0. Offense, defense and special teams were all dominant. The energy for the home team was already gone.
“Auburn football,” said Jack linebacker Jalen McLeod, who finished with three sacks and four tackles for loss. “That’s exactly what it felt like. No other way to describe it.”
After 51 more minutes of game time, Auburn had a 38-point win over an SEC West foe. (Remember: Arkansas was favored in this game.) It was the biggest blowout for the Tigers in league play since 2019, when they walked into Razorback Stadium and beat the Hogs by 41.
The 48-10 win was a return to form for a program that had been wandering for three seasons since their last lopsided win here. That’s because, when these Tigers have their act together, they can beat Arkansas like nobody’s business. This was a sign that they were fully back on track.
And it wasn’t just the simple fact that Auburn blew out Arkansas on Saturday. It was win No. 6 on the season, clinching bowl eligibility with two games to spare. One more win — likely against New Mexico State next week — would give the Tigers more regular-season victories than they’ve had since that 2019 campaign.
“To gain bowl eligibility on the road, another SEC win, is something I’m really proud of,” head coach Hugh Freeze said. “Just thankful. I thought we played our most complete game of the year against a team that I thought played their best last week. Just really thrilled. … It’s an exciting day for us.”
That’s how Freeze opened his press conference. He ended it with a smiling, knowing answer about wanting to “get us another pass rusher or two, hopefully, soon” in recruiting.
Less than an hour later, news broke that Jamonta Waller — a top-75 overall recruit and one of the nation’s best edge defenders in the Class of 2024 — had flipped his commitment from Florida to Auburn.
An exciting day for the Tigers, indeed.
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s 48-10 beatdown of Arkansas, along with Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
EDGE Jalen McLeod (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
Auburn sent Arkansas to ‘The Boneyard’
Auburn’s defensive front has a new tradition. Whenever it gets three sacks on a quarterback in a game, it puts his picture up on the wall in their meeting room.
It’s called “The Boneyard.”
“I always joke with them: ‘Are we going Boneyard today?’“ Scott said. “I said it earlier in the game. I didn't know what the count was, but (defensive line coach Jeremy Garrett), he was like, ‘He's been in the Boneyard — three quarters ago.’”
Auburn had five sacks against Arkansas quarterbacks K.J. Jefferson and Jacolby Criswell. That’s back-to-back games with five sacks, which is the first time the Tigers have pulled that off since 2018.
Now in three of their last four games, the pass rush has made a tremendous impact on the action, creating relentless pressure on the quarterback.
“We got 10 times better,” McLeod said of the pass rush. “You clearly see it — the last three games, four games, actually, we’ve been getting home. It just comes from preparation. We’re just having fun. We know that it starts in the trenches.”
Last week, Jefferson got back to his old self after Arkansas fired its offensive coordinator. In the win over Florida, Jefferson went 20-31 passing for 255 yards and two touchdowns while adding 92 rushing yards and another touchdown.
On Saturday, Jefferson went 10-16 for 116 yards. He finished with only 50 rushing yards, averaging 3.3 per carry when it was all said and done behind an overmatched offensive line. He also got pulled early for Criswell.
“I thought they made K.J. feel really uncomfortable from the start of the game and really crushed the pocket,” Freeze said. “You know he’s going to break a few out of there. He’s done it against everybody.”
Late in the second quarter, Jefferson was stripped by McLeod, setting up yet another scoring opportunity for the Tigers’ offense. He had a Boneyard game all by himself, and he led the team in tackles with nine — which is rare for an edge defender.
“SEC Defensive Player of the Week,” inside linebacker Eugene Asante said of McLeod. “No question. I'm just putting it in the air. Speaking it into existence. That's the SEC Defensive Player of the Week.”
McLeod has been on fire in the past month, with the exception of a game against Mississippi State where the Tigers didn’t get too much pressure on a quick-throwing offense. He’s racking up pressures and sacks, looking even more like the player Auburn envisioned when it picked him up from the transfer portal this offseason.
But McLeod isn’t doing it alone. Marcus Harris had a sack and a half, continuing his hot run as an interior pass-rusher. Asante and reserve defensive back Champ Anthony got in the sack party as blitzers. Even rotational defensive line pieces such as Lawrence Johnson helped limit Jefferson’s impact on the game.
“That’s how you want it as pass rushers,” McLeod said. “He had no pocket to stand in. He can’t throw the ball, he can’t see the routes or receivers… that’s what you want. And the interior, edge rushers, Elijah (McAllister), we all knew that’s what we want. That’s exactly what you want. You want the pressure. The quarterback can’t step up, and it makes it easier for us to get sacks.”
And the dominance in the trenches wasn’t limited to the passing attempts.
Auburn’s defense only allowed 120 rushing yards for the entire game, and Criswell had 60 of them on one play in the fourth quarter against a reserve-heavy unit.
Exactly one-third of Arkansas’ rushing attempts went for 2 or fewer yards. Rocket Sanders had eight carries for zero net yards and had a fumble that Caleb Wooden returned 74 yards to set up another touchdown.
“We have guys up front that can stop the run, and we have linebackers that are coming downhill and being gap sound,” Asante said. “(Arkansas) did a lot of good things last week. I know they had a new offensive coordinator come in and adapt some of his stuff. ... But, we were just playing our style of football, understanding what we do, and playing Auburn defense.”
RB Jarquez Hunter (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
The Tigers straight-up bullied the Hogs on the ground
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