Auburn break the ‘Big Play Blues,’ escape with win over Arkansas

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Oct 3, 2020; Auburn, AL, USA; Anders Carlson (26) reacts after kick during the game between Auburn and Arkansas at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

By Wil Crews
Opelika Observer

Big throws from Bo Nix and even bigger runs from freshman running back Tank Bigsby. That was the story in a wet, sloppy and explosive game in Jordan Hare on Saturday.

“Our guys kept battling,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “We have an opportunity to get better each week.”

Auburn hosted the Arkansas Razorbacks and in dramatic fashion, the Tigers came out on top. After a controversial botched spike from Nix was ruled as intentional grounding, Anders Carlson bounced back from a kick he missed two minutes earlier and hit a similar game winning 39-yard field goal with 0:07 seconds left on the game clock to give Auburn the 30-28 win.

“I just kind gave him [Carlson] that look and gave him a fist bump, he knows,” Malzahn said. “He’s a great kicker, one of the best kickers in the country. He was looking forward to that and you could see it in his eyes… Game winning kick at home in the SEC, it doesn’t get much better than that as a kicker and that will help him moving forward too.”

The Auburn offensive struggles of the first two weeks were put to bed and the narrative flipped on Saturday, as the Tigers had five plays go for more than 20 yards, one fewer than their previous two-week total and racked up 446 total yards of offense. In total, the Tigers had four passes of over 15 yards and 12 runs of over 10 yards. Part of that success has to be contributed to Bigsby. While the abrupt runner only had one carry go for more than 20 yards – a 26-yarder in the second quarter – he gashed the Razorback defense time after time. He had five of those runs of 10 or more yards and finished with 20 carries for 146 yards, good enough for a 7.3 yard-per-carry average. “He broke tackles, he ran extremely hard,” Malzahn said of Bigsby. “He bounced a couple out, cut them back, ran some guys over… I thought he did a good job.” Bigsby was the main reason the Razorbacks were sent home squealing.

If there was any other difference in the closely contested game, it had to be the inclement weather. This was perhaps one of the reasons the Auburn offense leaned heavily on the run game and the young Bigsby to begin. ”It makes my job a lot easier when he’s running the ball like that,” Nix said about his freshman running back. “He’s young, he’s still got a lot to learn; but the effort, the intensity and the playmaking ability is definitely there for him.” Auburn ran for 215 yards in the first half; Bigsby was responsible for 106 of them. Sophomore running back D.J. Williams popped off a 41-yard run of his own late in the first.

Things were going well for the Tigers, Nix was unbothered – and barely used – and they looked to be focused on fixing the run blocking from the jump. “I thought [the offensive line] really did a good job,” Malzahn said. “We talked all week about being balanced and we got to be able to run the football.”

The defense matched the offenses promising start and with 4:32 left on in the first quarter, and the Razorbacks punting from their own end zone, Jordyn Peters got his fourth blocked punt of his career and walk-on Barton Lester recovered the ball in the end zone for the Auburn touchdown. “He [Peters] was close to blocking one the first game, it was nice that we got that,” Malzahn said. Tigers led 7-0 early.

The Tigers continued to pound the ball and throw towards the boundary; a Carlson field goal and a 15-yard Nix keeper-for-touchdown-run gave Auburn a 17-0 lead with 9:22 left in the second quarter. The drive in which Nix kept it for the touchdown was a 10-play, run-only drive that was by far the Tigers best of the season to date.

But, this is when Arkansas came into the game. At the 9:22 mark in the second quarter, Arkansas had only mustered 65 yards of offense. They finished with 437. Arkansas quarterback Felipe Franks began to find his rhythm and while not exposing the Auburn secondary, threw underneath them at will. “He played tough,” Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said of Franks. “He’s gotten better every week; it would be hard not to be proud of him tonight.” The drive after Auburn took the 17-point lead, the Razorbacks responded with an 8-play, 65-yard drive that only took 2:58 of game clock. The Razorbacks had cut the lead to 10. After a four-play Auburn drive, Arkansas would find the end zone again, going 75 yards in two minutes. Arkansas took the momentum into the half but trailed Auburn 17-12 (a botched extra point and failed two-point conversion cost them two points).

The second half saw the rain dissipate and the pass game punctuated. While Nix was practically a spectator in the first-half, he captained his team to victory in the second. He repeatedly found his favorite targets Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz (the only two Auburn receivers to catch a pass) and, after having only 45 first-half passing yards, he finished with 187 yards and a score. Nix had three of the five “big plays” for Auburn and they all came in the second half. The biggest came with 5:29 left in the fourth quarter as he found Williams for a 32-yard catch and the receiver hurdled a defender for extra yardage.

Arkansas had a number of big plays of their own; Franks had four completions of more than 20 yards and rallied his team to a second half comeback. The Razorbacks had the ball, only needing a first down to ice the game, but went three and out. Auburn received the punt and Anders Carlson made the game history. Auburn escaped.

There were many positive to the performance but still plenty to worry about as Auburn fans would have expected less of a stress-you-the-heck-out game.

Freshman tight end J.J. Pegues got some early action in the wildcat and had a nice first-down run, making two defenders miss in the process. Stud receivers Schwartz and Williams looked good, the former exploding for a 10 catch 100-yard and one touchdown performance. Williams looked a little banged up but still made three important catches for 70 yards. “He [Williams] is not 100%,” Malzahn said. Although the lack of other receiving options is a worrying note, the stars on the outside seemed to be enough. “You got to keep in mind those are two of the best receivers in our league, and they made some plays,” Malzahn said.

The Tigers defense held the Razorbacks to 6-15 on third down (40%), a mark the Auburn offense matched, and managed to sack Franks three times (a mark the Razorbacks matched as well).

Neither team turned the ball over but the Tigers had seven penalties for 72 yards. That has to be cleaned up. Also, at least four kickoffs were sent out of bounds; “at least” is all that can be said because the frequency in which it kept happening was seriously that mind boggling. The young Auburn defense gave up 437 yards but Big Kat Bryant’s absence cannot be discounted.

“Extremely proud of our team to get a hard fought SEC victory,” Malzahn said.

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