AUBURN, Ala. -- The forward pass is still not a friend at Arkansas. The focus there in the offseason didn't seem to help the Razorbacks in a 45-21 loss at Auburn.
Arkansas battled to a 21-21 deadlock in the first half at the SEC defending champs to open the season, but the Tigers owned the line of scrimmage in the second half, especially after a storm delay of almost 90 minutes.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema called Cody Hollister “the freak” when he was found in the junior college ranks last year. Hollister might turn out to be a dependable possession receiver and made a nice seam catch to convert a third-and-15 for a rare first down in the third quarter.
However, it was Auburn that had “the freak” wideout, a likely one-and-done from the juco ranks. D'haquille “Duke” Williams – with nine catches before the lightning delay – worked over the Arkansas secondary in a first-half aerial show that allowed Gus Malzahn to properly bench All-SEC quarterback Nick Marshall for a summer pot ticket.
"We knew about Duke Williams," Arkansas safety Alan Turner said. "He did some real nice things. He caught the ball on me. He has a great outside stem, then a comeback to the inside. He was able to make plays."
Bielema was disappointed in the lack of disciplined eyes in the secondary to play the big, fast Auburn wideouts.
"We have to have our eyes in the right places," he said. "Williams is a very good player and he got open on our back end. Our guys, maybe we didn't have the speed of the game. We have to read our keys. I think we were behind the play."
Auburn, a run first team last year, was pass first out of the gate this time. Obviously, the Tigers have improved at wide receiver in a big way. And the big playmaker on defense produced a day after learning the NCAA had granted his eligibility.
"We were close to 50/50 on passing and rushing yards," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "I am very proud of Jeremy Johnson.
"We said before that we feel like he could start for most teams in college football. I think everybody saw that tonight. We have two outstanding quarterbacks. Cameron Artis-Payne really carried the load for us. I thought he did a solid job of running between the tackles. He is at his best as the game goes on.
"Duke Williams I think everybody saw today that he has playmaking ability. Robenson Therezie we found out yesterday that he is eligible."
Johnson completed his first eight passes to lead the Tigers to a 21-7 lead before his magic disappeared and the Hogs could zero in on running back Cameron Artis-Payne to make it 21-all at halftime.
Then Marshall took the controls to give the Tigers the answers in the running game to put the game away in the third quarter. With linebackers chasing Artis-Payne, Marshall dashed 19 yards to complete a nine-play, 78-yard drive.
Arkansas couldn't cash the first Auburn turnover, an Artis-Payne fumble caused by Tevin Beanum. A fake reverse pass from Brandon Allen to Keon Hatcher gained 17 to the Auburn 34, but that's where the Hogs stalled.
"We didn't take advantage of the turnover our defense got for us," Allen said. "I have a sense that we were there and didn't capitalize. We had some momentum at halftime when they missed the field goal and then we didn't get anything going on offense in the second half.
"We had the the third-and-4 (at the Auburn 28) and we had been told by our coaches we were in four-down territory. We had great field position, lost yardage and then had to pooch punt. It was a killer for our offense. The coaches had confidence in giving us the go ahead as far as four-down position and we didn't do anything with it."
After forcing the third Auburn punt, Allen had no protection on a Therezie blitz. A starter all last year at the “star” or rover spot, Therezie was declared eligible on Friday morning. No one has commented on his cloudy status all summer.
Therezie came through the middle of the pocket to hit Allen in the chest as he was throwing. A duck resulted that Jermaine Whitehead intercepted and rolled 32 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.
"Huge momentum swing," Allen said. "I thought I could get the pass off, but obviously I didn't. We didn't capitalize on their fumble and they did on the pick six."
Until then, the game hinged on catches by the Auburn receivers and drops by their counterparts in all white. Keon Hatcher dropped a potential Allen touchdown in the first half. Demetrius Wilson dropped another one on third-and-8 on the first Arkansas possession of the second half.
After making 159 yards in the second quarter to total 267 in the half, the Hogs turned more heavily to the pass early in the third quarter and mustered only 43 on 14 snaps in the third.
Auburn seemed to stunt its way out of plays in the first half to turn the Hogs loose in the running game. The Tigers played their gaps tougher in the third quarter and the visitor's big offensive line didn't produce any openings.
"Really, they did a lot of the same things in the second half," Allen said. "Mainly, I think they just caught on to what we were doing. I don't think it was major adjustments, maybe a few more pressures."
Perhaps Arkansas was handicapped at halftime because coaches were unable to get to the locker room. The elevator, usually held with two minutes left in the half, was not available, then became stuck on the way to the field. Eventually, coaches went back to the box and communicated by phone.
"I think we were able to talk about the things that needed to be covered, but they didn't get to us," Allen said. "After the storm, they didn't go back to the box. They stayed with us on the field."
The Arkansas tackling was poor. Bielema said there was “too much trying to be disruptive” in an attempt to cause fumbles.
“I didn't wrap up,” said Turner, the Hogs' best tackler last year. “I'm at fault and we had a lot of that not wrapping up tonight.”
All discounted the early week distraction when Allen's truck was destroyed by arson in an early-morning Monday attack.
"It wasn't any fun, but it didn't change anything I did this week," Allen said. "I ended up with a sweet new (rental) ride. I'm good.
"We just went on about everything we were doing. It didn't change me. I wasn't going to let it disrupt anything and it didn't."
Bielema said about the same thing, noting the quarterback's preparation was good and his play was solid except for trying to throw under pressure from Therezie's blitz.
"He was the same, on rhythm and accurate," Bielema said. "I thought the receivers were good in camp and I think we still have confidence in them."
So what changed so much at halftime?
"They made adjustments, and our guys did as well," Bielema said. "I think we began to press a little bit when we were down by two scores. Our coaches and players, we had a plan that was working. We were able to run the football effectively, we just didn't go to it much in the third quarter, and that's something we definitely need to take a look at."
Defensive end Trey Flowers said the hot, muggy conditions did not catch the Hogs off guard and doubted that conditioning was a factor in the second half slippage.
"We were ready," Flowers said. "Our coaches had conditioning sessions after practice to make sure conditioning was not an issue. I think we felt good about our conditioning."
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