AUBURN, Ala. – Although they came to The Plains bearing plenty of gifts, the University of Arkansas ended up taking home the biggest prize.
Michael Smith rushed 35 times for a career-high 176 yards – including a go-ahead 63-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter – and Matt Harris' interception capped things as the Razorbacks rallied to upset No. 20 Auburn 25-22 Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"I can't say enough about our assistant coaches and our players, how hard they prepared, how hard they fought tonight," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said. "They showed a lot of character, showed a lot of leadership, great attitude and just continued to work and that's not easy when you have had a couple of losses like we have."
It was a indeed a heck of a way for the Razorbacks (3-3, 1-2) cap off a run of four straight games against Top 25 foes - especially after losing the last three games by a total of 108 points.
"I don't think I have ever been more happy of a group of guys in my life," Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick said. "We have been through a lot in the last couple of games and it's easy to see how we have gotten a lot better. We've grown as a team. We came out and executed well. We knew if we could get the ball in the fourth quarter, in a close game we would have a chance. The bottom line, we just went out there and executed, had fun and stuck together."
Smith's night was exceptional.
'He hit a homerun, and that was really great," Petrino said. "He played really well all night. He showed a tremendous amount of poise and had a lot of carries; 21 in the first half. I was concerned about that, that's why I thought we would have to throw it a little more the second half, but then he breaks a long run for a touchdown, that was very well blocked, and he made a great cut.
"Taking all of those carries he showed great toughness," Petrino added. "He's very quick and doesn't take a lot of big hits. He's very good at slipping and sliding. Auburn hit hard and ran to the ball very well tonight."
Smith knows he might be feeling some pain on Sunday, but was happy on Saturday.
"I'm just glad we came out and got the win," Smith said. "To be honest with you, I didn't even know that I had that many carries, but I think my body knows it. It was a physical game and I took some big hits, but it wasn't that bad.
"They got quite a few big hits on me," Smith continued. "They were a fast, physical defense and you have to give them credit; they contained me very well. When I am called, I have to get in there and get the job done."
The Razorbacks, whose victory made it six wins in seven games by the visitors in the series, had an overwhelming 415-193 yard total offense advantage.
"We were moving it real well and executing, being able to run the ball, being able to execute our passing game, guys making plays and I think that was the best thing about us offensively - guys were making plays," Petrino said.
But Arkansas – which had two interceptions, a fumbled kickoff that led to an Auburn score, gave up a kickoff return for another TD and an extra point blocked - didn't secure the victory until the final minutes of the game with two big defensive stops.
The first happened when a pass from former Fort Smith Northside quarterback Kodi Burns' pass fell incomplete on 4th-and-goal from the Arkansas 5 with 1:24 left in the game.
The Tigers (4-3, 2-3) then used all three of their timeouts and cut it to 25-22 when Razorback punter Jeremy Davis deliberately took a safety with just over a minute left.
Auburn then took the ensuing free kick and returned it to its own 38 with 55 seconds remaining.
But Harris picked off Burns' heave down the middle of the field to give Arkansas' its first SEC win of the season.
"We started off really slow and we did not play consistent," Burns said. "Overall, we are average right now."
Auburn ended the game with just 56 net rushing yards on 33 carries.
"Our defense played physical - very physical," Petrino said. "We felt like we had to stop the run, we did that and we really pressured the quarterback. I think that was the big difference in the game is that we really got a lot of pressure on them all night long."
Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville, who fired offensive coordinator Tony Franklin earlier this week after five weeks of struggling offense and a loss to Vanderbilt last Saturday, took the blame for the loss on his shoulders.
"It's been a tough week," Tuberville said. "I put our guys in a tough situation. I thought they fought hard, real hard. We didn't have a lot obviously on offense. Defensively we couldn't get them off the field. They did an excellent job. You can't take anything away from them. It was a tough night and a tough week overall."
"I feel really tough our players," Tuberville added. "We struggled in every area. We can look at offense, but it wasn't just offense
Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick was 17-of-32 passing for 222 yards while Burns was 7-of-18 for 199 yards and back-up Chris Todd just 3-of-10 for 18 yards.
Burns was also the Tigers' leading rusher with 16 carries for 34 yards while tailback Ben Tate was held to 32 yards.
Auburn led 20-10 just a few minutes into the second half when Dennis Johnson fumbled the third quarter kickoff and Burns scored on a 3-yard run.
But it was all Arkansas after that as the Razorbacks moved the football all day against the nation's 7th ranked defense.
"They kept us off balance," Tuberville said. "They did a good job of throwing crossing routes versus man coverage. We were able to force a couple of turnovers early in the first half which gave us some points and took their momentum away. In the second half other than that kickoff, they just didn't make any mistakes. They made a lot of third-down conversions and, of course, the run was huge."
The Razorbacks bounced back by marching 62 yards in 9 plays with true freshman wideout Joe Adams and Dick reversing roles with the wideout throwing a 6-yard scoring pass off a double reverse to the quarterback.
"It was the time to do it," Petrino said. "We were right where we wanted to be on the field and it is something that we have been working on for a long, long time. Our players executed it to perfection."
Haddock's extra point was blocked to leave it 20-16 with 3:02 remaining in the third quarter.
Adrian Davis then picked off Todd and returned to the Auburn 23 with Haddock's 44-yard field goal cutting it to 20-19 with 14:07 left in the game.
Smith then gave the Razorbacks the lead when he ripped off his 63-yard dash in which he used a cutback move to cap the run.
Although Arkansas' 2-point conversion pass failed, the Razorbacks had taken a 25-20 lead with 8:50 left in the game.
Auburn led 13-10 at halftime despite
the Razorbacks, who had the ball for over 21 of the first half's 30 minutes of action, having a 244-53 yard total offense advantage at the break.
The Tigers only had 32 yards rushing and 21 passing at intermission as Burns and Todd were a combined 2-of-10 passing before intermission.
The Tigers then took another Arkansas gift – Dennis Johnson's fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half – and cashed it in on Burns' 3-yard run.
That made it 20-10 with 12:43 left in the third quarter despite Auburn having just 77 yards total offense at the time.
Wes Byrum's 33-yard field goal missed giving the Razorbacks an opening that they took advantage of.
"That last field goal that we missed put us in a bind," Tuberville said. "We could have gone ahead with that last field goal instead of having to go for it again."
After forcing Auburn into a three-and-out on the game's first series, Arkansas actually got its first opening quarter points of the season to go up 3-0.
It came on Haddock's 27-yard field goal with 6:46 left in the first quarter and capped an impressive 13-play, 71-yard drive.
That momentum was short-lived as Tristan Davis fielded Jeremy Davis' ensuing kickoff at the 3 and returned it 97 yards untouched for a touchdown.
Byrum's PAT pushed the home team ahead 7-3 with 6:33 remaining in the first quarter.
Although Arkansas mounted another deep drive into Auburn territory, the jaunt ended badly when Dick was intercepted by Neiko Thorpe at the Tigers' 21.
He returned it 59 yards with only Adams' speed keeping him from scoring.
It ended up being a huge play as Auburn had to settle for Byrum's 45-yard field goal that made it 10-3 with 12:05 left before halftime.
The Razorbacks responded by driving 80 yards in 11 plays with Dick's 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down and Haddock's PAT forging a 10-10 deadlock with 6:42 left before intermission.
Key plays on the drive included a 39-yard pass from Dick to true freshman Greg Childs and a 11-yard completion to D.J. Williams on 3rd-and-3 that got Arkansas to the 6.
Smith got 5 yards to the 1, but was then stopped twice for no gain before Petrino decided to gamble and Dick as his teammates rewarded him by getting that final yard.
"It's the same play we ran against Western Illinois to score when we drove the ball down there," Petrino said. "It's just a little quarterback run that actually you can get them outnumbered a little bit when you run the quarterback. It is not something we do a lot, but it was a great job by the box upstairs when they made that call and we ran it right in."
Arkansas had a chance to take the lead, but Josh Byrnes picked Dick's throw and returned it 19 yards to the Razorback 31.
Auburn could not get into the end zone and settled for Byrum's 35-yard boot capped the first-half scoring with 26 seconds left before halftime.
Arkansas returns to action next Saturday when it travels to Kentucky for a 6 p.m. contest.
"You win a game like this and it sure makes you feel good about it," Petrino said. "Again I can't say enough about our players and the character they have shownm the toughness, the mental toughness and just a great attitude."
Freshmen defensive tackle Zach Stadther echoed that sentiment.
"People are going to start believing in us now," Stadther said. "We can play. We had a couple of stumbles in the first few games, but I really think we showed what we can do today and we're going to have confidence heading into the Kentucky game."
Michael Smith carried the ball 35 times for 173 yards - both career highs for the junior tailback.
Casey Dick looks for extra yardage.
Arkansas 25, Auburn 22
Hawgs Daily Top Stories
Scout 2017 Rankings DirectoryThe Scout positional, state, regional, national and team rankings for the Class of 2017...
2017 Signing Day announcement scheduleComplete list of announcement times for the most high-profile uncommitted recruits in 2017.
Scout's Top 25 Recruiting ClassesA look at Scout's top 25 classes with just over a week to go to Signing Day.
Weekend Official Visit PrimerScout takes a look at the biggest visitors for the upcoming weekend in the Power 5 conferences...