Auburn starter Nick Marshall has been nursing a sore shoulder all week after leaving the win over Florida Atlantic early. While it likely won't be enough to keep him out of the game this weekend, there is a chance it could limit his effectiveness throwing the ball down the field for the Tigers. That could be important against an Arkansas team that will likely stack the box and make an already strong front four even stronger.
Because of that it won't be surprise to see true freshman Jeremy Johnson become involved in the offense a good bit on Saturday. With the arm strength and accuracy to challenge the Razorbacks down the field, Johnson could be a key to Auburn's success if Marshall struggles at all on Saturday night. But, if the Auburn starter is back to full strength and ready to go, it should give the Tigers plenty of ammunition to fire at the Hogs in Fayetteville.
Running On Empty
With Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen struggling to put together a consistent passing attack, Auburn's first goal, as usual, will be to make the opponent throw the football. That's easier said than done against an Arkansas team that has a massive offensive line and two outstanding young running backs. Averaging 209.9 yards per game on the ground, the Razorbacks have put up some big numbers this season in that department.
Led by true freshman Alex Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams, Arkansas piled up 292 yards on the ground in the opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, 333 the next week against Samford and 258 in week three against hapless Southern Miss
Since that time, however, the Razorbacks have not had as much success. Even with 201 against Texas A&M and 218 against South Carolina, Arkansas is averaging just 165 yards rushing the last five games. Not surprisingly the Razorbacks have lost all five. If Auburn can slow the Arkansas running backs and make quarterback Allen throw the ball to win it should mean good things for the Tigers.
Blocking The Bookends
One of the biggest keys for Auburn's offense this Saturday night will be dealing with defensive ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. Combining for 10 sacks and 16 1/2 tackles for losses this season, they comprise one of the top duos in the Southeastern Conference this season and will be a big challenge for the Tigers on the edge. It's not just protecting the passer this week, but how well they contain both in the running game is huge as well.
Running the zone read it will be up to the quarterback to make the correct read to pull the ball or leave it with the running backs. The key plays may be with Corey Grant and the perimeter game. If the Tigers have problems getting to the outside it may force them to spread the field more and leave the tackles in one-on-one situations.
Winning The Fourth
Auburn's work in the offseason conditioning program has paid off in a big way this season as the Tigers have dominated opponents in the fourth quarter. Allowing just 67.8 yards per game in the final period, the Tigers have given up just 23 points during that time with the only touchdown coming at LSU. The most impressive statistic has been the play on third down for Ellis Johnson's defense in the fourth quarter. Facing 32 third down opportunities, Auburn has allowed just six first downs (18.75 percent). That number leads the SEC.
Offensively, Auburn leads the nation in rushing in the fourth quarter and that could come into play against an Arkansas team that has been outscored 48-21 in the final 15 minutes of games this season. If the Tigers can withstand an early challenge from what should be a fired up and rested Arkansas team and get the game into the second half it should provide a big advantage to the visitors down the stretch. Take the game over early and it could mean a big night for Malzahn's club on the road.
Malzahn vs. Bielema
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has been very outspoken in his disdain for the hurry-up offenses that are the rage in college football, including with the Auburn Tigers. It really started during SEC Media Days when Gus Malzahn commented he thought Bielema's comments were a joke. The former Wisconsin coach responded with a what would have to be considered a tirade about player safety and something about looking a parent in the eyes. I'll let you read it for yourself again.
"All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break. You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15. If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that's my fault. I can't do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in whether I'm on offense or defense.
"The problem that people have is you look at it just from an offensive or defensive point of view. I'm looking at it from a head coach's point of view, that the personal well-being and safety of my players is paramount.
"I've had a situation that I've had to call a parent because their son may not make it through because of either an injury, not make it through life, but the next day, whether he can play football or not. To me that's real. That's the job I have to protect."
Just for reference, Wisconsin ran 926 plays in 2012, which would have been second in the Southeastern Conference. The year before the Badgers ran 937. Auburn's 2010 offense, the best in school history, ran just 948 total plays for the season. That's also the only season in Auburn history the Tigers have ever had more than his last two seasons at Wisconsin.
While Bielema has continued to poke and prod at Malzahn and the Tigers, his latest ploy complaining about extra-point attempts on game video, Auburn's coaches and players continue to take the high road and follow the lead of their head coach.
Kickoff: 5 p.m. CDT