AUBURN, Ala. - Nick Marshall's suspension may have kept the quarterback from starting his team's season-opener with Arkansas on Saturday, but it didn't keep him from coming to the rescue after the defending SEC Champions began to wobble.
Marshall's suspension – which head coach Gus Malzahn refused to clarify before the game - ended the first play of the second half after the Razorbacks had rallied from two touchdowns down to forge a tie with the Tigers at halftime.
He would lead two touchdown drives while newcomer Duke Williams caught 9 passes for 154 yards and Cameron Artis-Payne rushed 26 times for 178 yards as No. 6 Auburn eventually downed Arkansas 45-21 in a weather-delayed game before a sold-out crowd of 87,451 fans at Jordan Hare Stadium.
"Nick's our leader," Malzahn said. "All our players respond to him but overall I thought the key in the second half was our defense really stepping up."
Arkansas had 265 yards of total offense in the first half, but just 61 after intermission.
"Overall, obviously, two quarters of football we can live with, and two that we can't," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said.
Malzahn complimented the visitors' effort.
"Arkansas, I believe, is much improved," Malzahn said. "I believe they'll win quite a few games."
Auburn also got an interception return for a touchdown from Jermaine Whitehead in the third quarter and Corey Grant's 3-yard touchdown runwith 4:45 left -- the only points after the lightning delay -- to cap the scoring.
"You have to give Auburn credit," Bielema said. "They were able to do it and we weren't. I thought we got off rhythm a little bit offensively."
Bielema was asked about halftime adjustments and informed the media that he didn't see his coaches from the press box at intermission.
"We ran into a little glitch," Bielema said. "Our coaches never made it down from the half. They were stuck in elevators. There was kind of a little audible there we had to deal with, but the great thing was the kids had big eyes and big ears."
When asked if the elevator issues affected his game plan at the break, Bielema elaborated.
"It is what it is," Bielema said. "We had to roll with the flow. Obviously I have coaches up in the booth who look forward to coming down here and meeting as a staff and get on the same page. We were able to communicate by phone.
"I'm not trying to make a big deal out of it, they just weren't able to get down there. I don't have the full story on it, I just know they were actually stuck."
It's not as if Auburn back-up Jeremy Johnson had a bad first half as he was 12-of-16 passing for 243 yards and two scores, but the Tigers struggled on offense after taking a 21-7 lead with 13:20 left in the second quarter.
"I didn't even know that I was going to play the full half," Johnson said. "That's just how the game went."
Arkansas answered the challenge as quarterback Brandon Allen – who had tossed a 14-yard-scoring toss to Hunter Henry in the first quarter - threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Derby and Jonathan Williams ran it in from 6 yards out to tie things, 21-21.
It remained deadlocked when Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson's 42-yard field goal attempt clanked off the right upright as time ran out in the first half.
"We got the rhythm rolling in the first half, but could not keep things moving forward in the second half," Allen said.
Allen – whose truck was a victim of suspect arson earlier in the week - was 18-of-31 for 175 yards passing and two touchdowns and the interception - which occurred as he was getting hit.
"I think the big swing was when BA got hit as he was throwing the ball there," Bielema said. "I thought he played a pretty clean game, was on his reads, on his routes."
The Razorbacks' rushing offense was dominant in the first half and rolled up 153 yards of the team's 328 yards total offense on the day.
But only two yards on 8 carries in the second half.
Alex Collins (10 carries, 68 yards), Korliss Marshall (8 for 45) and Williams (7 for 34) all had their moments during the day.
But Arkansas only had 33 yards on 14 plays in a third quarter in which Marshall led his team to the two scores – which was followed by Carlson's 45-yard field goal that made it 38-21 with 9:55 left in the fourth quarter.
That was the last thing to happen before referees suspended the game due to lightning being within eight miles of the stadium.
The delay lasted from 5:52 p.m. until 7:20 p.m. - which was an hour and 28 minutes - on a day when Auburn had 595 yards total offense.
Marshall – who quarterbacked his team to the national title game last season and then got into legal trouble in the off-season – had bounced off suspension to lead his team on a 9-play, 78-yard drive right after halftime.
He capped that drive by running into the end zone from 19 yards and Carlson's PAT gave the Tigers a 28-21 lead with 10:42 left in the third quarter.
Robenson Therezie - just declared eligible the night before the game after what Malzahn said was eligibility issues - ran by Henry and bulldozed Allen as he was passing to set up the interception return.
"Robenson Therezie, we found out yesterday that he's eligible," Malzahn said. "That's really all I'm going to say about that out of respect for him, but that's a good thing moving forward."
That made it 35-21 and allowed the Auburn faithful to breath easier.
"He's a playmaker," Malzahn said. "He was a playmaker last year, and he made a big play tonight."
Auburn's offense got off to a roaring start with Johnson at the helm as the Tigers' first offensive possession of the season resulted in an 8-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by Johnson's 49-yard touchdown pass to Melvin Ray.
Ray caught a short pass, bounced off a tackle attempt by senior safety Rohan Gaines and raced to the end zone. Carlson's PAT put Auburn up 7-0 with 9:37 left in the first quarter.
"We've said before that we feel like he (Johnson) could start for most teams in college," Malzahn said. "I think everybody saw that (Saturday)."
Arkansas answered right back by racing 75 yards in six plays – most of it on the ground, but capped by the 14-yard pass from Allen to a wide open Henry that combined with John Henson's PAT to tie it 7-7 less than three minutes later.
Auburn sprinted right back down the field and actually scored on consecutive possessions – a 1-yard run by Artis-Payne and Williams' 16-yard TD pass from Johnson – for a 21-7 lead less than two minutes into the second quarter.
"This is the first time [Malzahn] ever just said something to me," Johnson said. "He said, 'You're a stud.' I just took that for a good thing."
Allen was 9-of-14 passing in the first half for 116 yards and two touchdowns, but also had a perfectly thrown deep ball dropped by Keon Hatcher that might have been a touchdown.
"I wish we had caught that big ball in the first half," Bielema said. "That's a play that we have got to have."
Demetrius Wilson - the senior wideout who missed last season due to a knee injury - had four catches for 55 yards while former quarterback now tight end Derby had 4 catches for 40 yards. His first catch was the one for a touchdown.
Arkansas will open its home season next week when Nicholls State visits for a 3 p.m. game in Fayetteville.
Air Force, with 558 yards rushing, routed Nicholls State 44-16 on Saturday.
Photos by Jason Ivester
Alex Collins turns the corner.
Taiwan Johnson puts heat on quarterback Jeremy Johnson.
Brandon Allen looks for a receiver.
Hunter Henry celebrates a TD catch.
Photos by Jason Ivester, Hawgs Illustrated
Auburn 45, Arkansas 21
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