Auburn, Ala.--The offense started the season as expected, but the Tigers’ had major first half struggles on defense before stepping up the pressure after intermission enabling Auburn to pull away for a 45-21 SEC football victory over Arkansas in the season opener for both teams on Saturday.
In a game delayed one hour and 28 minutes when play was stopped with 9:55 in the fourth quarter because of lightning strikes in the area, the Tigers turned up the defensive intensity in the second half to change the momentum after the teams were deadlocked at 21-21 at halftime.
Auburn’s defense, which allowed 108 yards in the first quarter and 159 more in the second, became more aggressive with blitz packages and fake blitzes after halftime. That strategy, along with adjustments on the front four to reduce the Razorbacks’ running lanes, allowed the Tigers to hold the visitors to just 43 yards and no points in the third quarter take control of the game.
The defense also chipped in with a touchdown of its own. Robenson Therezie, who was cleared to play on Friday due to an eligibility question, set up a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown by senior safety Jermaine Whitehead.
Blitzing on the play, Therezie hit quarterback Brandon Allen as he threw the football, which fell softly into the waiting arms of Whitehead. Whitehead cut across the field and used a block by Montravius Adams to score in front of the student section with 2:39 left in the third quarter.
“The offensive line came in and made a couple of tweaks and after that it was over,” Artis-Payne said after the Tigers rushed for 302 yards and passed for 293.
“The offensive line started getting in a groove and they are coming over there (on the sideline) and saying they don’t want no more,” Artis-Payne said. “Once you hear the big guys saying that it is time to go.”
Gus Malzahn said he was proud of how his team opened vs. an SEC opponent. “Arkansas, I believe, is much improved,” he said. “I believe they will win quite a few games.
“It was a tie game at halftime,” Malzahn said. “We talked to our players and it was probably going to be a dog-fight. We knew they were going to be better. I am very proud of the way our guys responded in the second half.
“Our defense made the adjustment,” Malzahn noted. “Coach (Ellis) Johnson put our guys in the right position. We started playing physical football and we stopped the run and that really made a difference in the game.”
Offensively, the head coach noted he liked the balance with 302 rushing yards and 293 in the air. “I really thought that was a big key tonight,” Malzahn said.
“If we can continue to do that it will be a very good thing,” added the coach, who noted that he is “very proud of Jeremy Johnson” for how he played in his first SEC start. “We have got two outstanding quarterbacks and that is definitely a good thing.”
The Tigers scored on their opening possession as Johnson found junior receiver Melvin Ray on the sideline and he made his defender missing before taking off on a 49-yard scoring play. After the game Malzahn noted that the walk-on didn’t surprise him after performing very well in the preseason.
Arkansas responded by moving 75 yards on six plays with tight end Hunter Henry scoring on a 14-yard pass play in which he was uncovered.
Auburn countered with a six-play, 75-yard drive of its own as Artis-Payne punched the ball in from a yard out after C.J. Uzomah set up the TD with a 26-yard catch over the middle.
Cameron Artis-Payne got the start for Auburn as the featured running back.
Auburn stretched the lead to 21-7 early in the second quarter as Johnson and D’haquille Williams hooked up on an 18-yard scoring play.
However, after that the Razorbacks tied the game with scoring drives of 75 and 93 yards as Auburn’s defense gave up big chunks of yardage on the ground and through the air.
Auburn had a chance to take the lead at halftime, but Daniel Carlson’s field goal attempt from 42 yards out bounced off the right upright.
First Half Numbers: Auburn racked up 311 yards on 34 first half plays with Johnson directing the attack. At intermission the Auburn defense allowed 267 yards enabling the Razorbacks to go into the break tied at 21-21.
Nick Marshall took over at quarterback in the second half and led the Tigers to the go-ahead touchdown. Auburn moved 78 yards on nine plays with Marshall racing up the middle for the score from 19 yards out.
Whitehead’s interception stretched the lead to 35-21 with 2:39 left in the third quarter. "I think the big swing was when BA (Brandon Allen) got hit as he was throwing the ball there," Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said after his record vs. Auburn dropped to 0-2.
On the final play prior to the weather delay, Carlson made a 45-yard field goal with 9:55 left in the game.
On the first possession after the delay the Tigers forced the Razorbacks to punt after a sack by junior Cassanova McKinzy with the visitors in a hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
Junior linebacker Cassanova McKinzy celebrates a big play for the defense.
Malzahn said he was happy with the way the Tigers finished the game after the long weather delay. The offense put the contest totally out of reach by moving 85 yards on eight plays as Corey Grant powered in from three yards out with 3:15 left to make the final score 45-21.
Worth Noting, Part 1: Jeremy Johnson couldn’t have asked for a much better first quarter. The sophomore was 7-7 passing for 186 yards and the Tigers scored touchdowns on drives that covered 75 yards on eight plays and six plays. They also started a third touchdown drive that covered 98 yards on seven plays.
Worth Noting, Part 2: Marshall’s first pass of the season was complete to Williams for no gain and his first run gained five yards before he finished the opening possession of the second half by finding a seam in the middle of the defense and racing by the Razorbacks.
Worth Noting, Part 3: Malzahn said the plan going in wasn’t to hold Marshall out the entire first half, but with Johnson playing well they let the sophomore run the offense for the first two quarters.
Home Streak: The Tigers improved their Jordan-Hare Stadium winning streak to 10 games dating back to the 2012 season.
Duke’s Debut: D’haquille “Duke” Williams led all receivers with nine catches for 154 yards.
Top Tacklers: Whitehead had seven solo tackles and Jonathon Mincy was in on six solo tackles and one assist to lead the Tigers. McKinzy, who had Auburn's only sack, added four solo tackles and two assists.
Up Next: The Tigers will take on San Jose State next Saturday at 6 p.m.