BY WIL CREWS
It’s been one step forward, two steps backward for the Auburn Tigers this season.
Following Saturday’s 34-10 loss to No. 2 Georgia, head coach Bryan Harsin has another chance to ingratiate himself with the Auburn faithful as a hog molly of a matchup against the No. 17 Arkansas Razorbacks (5-2) awaits this weekend.
Ohh, the joys of an SEC schedule.
The road game against the red pigs presents a unique opportunity for the Tigers — a chance to build some momentum before the bye week as they head toward the home stretch of the season.
So, what do the -3.5-point underdog Tigers need to do to emerge victorious from Little Rock?
Number one is bring the physicality. I’m talking Bruce Pearl in the student section with his shirt off flexing physicality. Auburn was pushed around by Georgia on Saturday — both on the offensive line and the defensive line (mostly in the second half). And the first thing Harsin said about Arkansas in his weekly press conference Monday was that the Hogs have some hogs up front. The Razorback’s identity is the ground game. If Auburn wants any shot at an upset, the defensive front needs to look more like they did in the first half of the Georgia game, and the offensive line needs to play angry.
Secondly, and this one piggybacks off the first, Auburn needs to establish the run. Tank Bigsby has looked a shell of himself this season. There is potential for a breakout game this week, however, as the Arkansas defense has allowed 181.5 rushing yards per game to its opponents this season. Nevertheless, to have an effective run game, it’s going to take a complete team effort — offensive line, tight ends, receivers and the other talented running backs. Everyone has to be focused. Harsin reiterated at his press conference that Auburn has been trying to establish the run early in every game this season. Well, you wouldn’t know by the looks of it. Things need to improve in that area quickly.
Thirdly, the Auburn pass rush and linebackers have to contain Arkansas quarterback K.J. Jefferson. The 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound Jefferson is playing some of his best football right now and is a handful to bring down when he gets on the move. That said, the Tigers should dare him to beat their defense through the air in a similar fashion to how they treated LSU’s Max Johnson. It’s a somewhat risky proposition given the problems the Tigers have had with giving up explosive pass plays, but the emergence of Northwestern transfer Eku Leota and the uptick in Derrick Hall’s play should give defensive coordinator Derrick Mason the confidence to execute this game plan. The return of linebacker Owen Pappoe would also aide that cause.
The fourth key to the game for Auburn doesn’t need much explaining. The offensive skill players have to help Nix by not dropping passes. Drops are typically a minor thing to nitpick, but the issue has become too apparent for the Tigers this season. Guys on the outside need to step up.
Lastly, and perhaps the biggest key for Auburn against the Razorbacks, is scoring red zone touchdowns. This issue has been much maligned in the recent weeks, and despite the trope of Auburn’s ever-reliable kicking game, it’s clear the Tigers need Anders Carlson kicking fewer field goals and more extra points. Arkansas puts up points — often in explosive fashion. Auburn’s offense has mostly been the antithesis of explosive this season, therefore finishing those long drives with touchdowns is imperative. To do so, the Tigers must put themselves in a position to be successful with better play calling and eliminating penalties and negative plays in the red the end zone.