FAYETTEVILLE – With perhaps what seems to be becoming some annual SEC officiating assistance, but mainly on their own prowess, the Auburn Tigers defeated Arkansas, 38-23, in Saturday’s SEC West game spoiling the Razorbacks homecoming before 73,370 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Arkansas’ third consecutive loss drops the 17th-ranked Razorbacks to 4-3 overall/1-3 in the SEC heading into next Saturday’s 11 a.m, nonconference game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock against UAPB (the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions).
Auburn advances to 5-2, 2-1 in the SEC into an open date.
While nothing so egregious as last year’s call in Auburn, Ala. that even SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey admitted was in error, voiding an Auburn fumble that Arkansas recovered but was not allowed to retain during Arkansas’ 30-28 game-winning field goal drive ,the Razorbacks and Coach Sam Pittman seemed to have cause to take umbrage with a couple of eyebrow raising calls Saturday.
Arkansas defensive end Jashaud Stewart, while tackling Auburn running back Jarqez Hunter, appeared to have dislodged the ball that Arkansas recovered at the Auburn 16 but was ruled not a fumble and upheld such upon review.
The call was not based on whistled dead as initially believed, but because of how Stewart tackled Hunter, Pittman said he was told.
“It was said that they had picked the ball carrier up and that meant that the ball now couldn’t be a fumble,” Pittman said. “So I don’t know. Last week I thought Rocket (running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders’ fumble as he fought for extra yardage in the 52-51 loss at Ole Miss) was stopped whenever they pulled the ball out of there. But maybe not. I don’t know.”
Instead of losing the ball at it 16, Auburn, then leading 7-3, was able to punt and keep Arkansas from scoring with Cam Little eventually short on a 53-yard field goal attempt.
Arkansas cornerback Hudson Clark, starting in place of injured cornerback LaDarrius Bishop, was called for a pass interference despite the pass appearing uncatchable.
That penalty kept an Auburn drive alive for Anders Carlson’s 29-yard field goal putting Auburn up what proved to be an insurmountable, 31-23 with 10:35 left in the game.
Auburn iced it, 38-23 consuming 6:11 before Bo Nix’s quarterback draw netted a 23-yard touchdown run with just 2:30 left.
Nix completed 21 or 26 passing for 292 yards with two touchdowns against a Montaric Brown interception and had that 23-yard rushing touchdown among 5 carries for 42 yards.
Both teams playing their seventh game in seven weeks, were without some key personnel because of injuries.
Arkansas particularly suffered defensively. All-SEC safety and defensive co-captain Jalen Catalon watched from the sidelines set for season-ending shoulder surgery Monday, Pittman said.
Starting defensive tackle Markell Utsey and Bishop also were sidelined from injuries last week.
Others played banged up and it showed, Pittman said.
“I think we all feel like crap,” Pittman replied to the Hogs’ physical state multiplied by three consecutive defeats. “I think we all do. I think we’ve got a beat up team, to be honest with you. Our team is beat up, and this bye week can’t get here fast enough. They’re trying, but if you see the plays we were making earlier in the year, we’re not making them now. Sometimes we are, but most of the time we’re not. I just think we’ve got a beat up football team. We need to get ready and play for Pine Bluff next weekend then take that week off. We need it.”
But as Pittman said, Auburn, under first-year Coach Bryan Harsin, was also playing its seventh game in seven weeks and “outplayed” Arkansas.
“I want to give a lot of credit obviously to Auburn,” Pittman said. “Coach had their team ready. They have a fine football team. They out-physicaled us on both sides of the ball. They outplayed us.
He outcoached me. And he had his team ready and obviously I didn’t have ours (ready).”
Arkansas fell despite outrushing Auburn 232-135.
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom switching Arkansas out of a 3-man front to a 4-man front helped slow the Tigers bread and butter running game. Running back Tank Bigsby, netting 146 yards rushing on the Hogs, only netted 68 on 18 carries Saturday.
However, the Hogs were vulnerable to Nix’s short passes which opened up deep ones including a 71-yard touchdown to receiver Demetris Robertson after one of Arkansas’ two failures to convert going for it on fourth down.
Also undoing the Hogs, normally decisive, sure-handed punt returner Nathan Parodi lost in the sun a punt by Oscar Chapman that rolled to a 57-yards rest Auburn downed at the Arkansas 11.
Two lost-yardage plays later, Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson was sacked by defensive end Derick Hall for what initially appeared would be safety. However, the ball popped out as Jefferson was tackled. It was recovered by defensive tackle Chris Harris for a touchdown and 21-17 lead.
“Parodi said he lost the ball,” Pittman said. “The sun was in his eye and he lost the ball. Parodi’s not going to lie, he lost the ball. At that point, I believe we were up 3. We had just stopped them, and that was kind of the final straw. Not really, but kind of, giving up those 7. Because our defense was playing pretty well to that point in the second half, and even late in the second quarter. Then to give that, it kind of took the wind out of our sails it seemed like.”
Senior left offensive tackle and offensive co-captain Myron Cunningham took the sack hard.
“He just beat me,” Cunningham said of Hall’s sack. “He just had my number that play. Just a frustrating day overall. Just tough when you can’t get those situations.”
Arkansas had rallied to lead, 17-14, on Jefferson’s second touchdown pass to receiver Treylon Burks.
Burks, 9 catches for 109 yards, caught 11-yard and 30-yard touchdown passes from Jefferson, 21 of 35 for 225 yards.
Nix had tallied a 39-yard touchdown pass to receiver Ja’Varrius Johnson’s on the game’s first series at 12:16 partially answered by Little’s 44-yard field goal at 7:37 of the first quarter.
Once they extricated themselves from Auburn’s early leads, the Hogs thought with seizing the 17-14 lead at home they would prevail, but Auburn denied them.
On Dominique Johnson’s 10-yard touchdown run capping a 13-play, 75-yard drive then a failed 2-point try trying to get within a field goal, the Hogs closed down to 28-23 on the last play of the third quarter.
Auburn played keep-away thereafter and scored the game’s final 10 points.
“We went out there and couldn’t execute when we had to and that turned the momentum,” Cunningham said.
Cornerback Montaric Brown, Arkansas’ Crip Hall Award winner as outstanding senior in the Homecoming game with his interception and eight tackle, and senior linebacker Bumper Pool also said the Hogs were “out executed.”
“I’m very frustrated, just because I thought we had a great week of preparation,” Pool said. “Hats off to Auburn. They played well and we didn’t do it. We just left too many plays out there. Feeling very frustrated.”