The result was a 25-22 loss to Arkansas as the preseason SEC West favorites found themselves out of the race for the conference championship long before Halloween. The prospect for more disappointment is certainly on the horizon for the struggling Tigers, who fell to 4-3 overall and 2-3 in the SEC.
Sophomore Kodi Burns, making his first start since opening night, drove the Tigers from their own 20 to first down and goal at the Arkansas five with Coach Bobby Petrino's Razorbacks trying to hang on to a 25-20 lead. The native of Fort Smith, Ark., had a golden opportunity to be the hero against his homestate team.
After a one-yard run at right guard, Burns missed receivers Rod Smith and Tim Hawthorne on fade routes and then overthrew running back Eric Smith in the end zone who was open for the potential game-winner.
Burns completed 7-18 passes for 119 yards and was intercepted twice. He also rushed 15 times for 38 yards and a TD. Chris Todd struggled, too, hitting just 3-10 passes for 18 yards and one interception. After the game, Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville said the QB situation would be re-evaluated and didn't rule out the chance that third-stringer Neil Caudle could get a look or that redshirting freshman Barrett Trotter could get a chance to play.
Arkansas got the football back with 1:23 left after Auburn stalled at the four. The Tigers, who used their three timeouts, stopped three running plays and instead of punting Petrino took a safety setting up a free kick with 1:03 left. Tristan Davis returned the free kick 25 yards to the AU 39.
Out of timeouts, Burns tried to pass, but ran up the middle for eight yards. On the next play he overthrew a pass that was intercepted by Matt Harris at the Arkansas 27 and the Tigers were losers.
"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 off the field. They did an excellent job. You can't take anything away from them. It was just a tough night and a tough week overall.
"I feel really tough for our players," said Tuberville, who fired offensive coordinator Tony Franklin on Wednesday and gave Steve Ensminger the assignment of calling the plays. The Tigers finished with 193 yards of total offense, 15 less than their awful performance a week earlier at Vandy.
Compounding the problem was the injury-plagued Auburn defense had its first bad game of the year, allowing the Razorbacks to rush for 188 yards and pass for 228 more. Arkansas converted 8-17 third downs, which proved to be a key to victory.
The Tigers couldn't put pressure on senior QB Casey Dick and little tailback Michael Smith rushed for 176 yards on 35 carries. He had the big play of the game for the Razorbacks, running 63 yards up the middle with 8:50 to play to put them up 25-20 as a pass play for two failed.
"We can look at offense, but it wasn't just offense," Tuberville said. "We struggled on offense. We struggled in a lot of different areas. The last field goal we missed put us in a bind. We could have gone ahead with that last field goal instead of having to go for it.
"Again, we are going to find out the character of our team," Tuberville added. "We are going to have to dig deep. We are going to have to dig hard. We are not playing very well right now. We are not coaching very well. Things keep snowballing on us. We need a little time to adjust and time to get people well and healthy. We have a few days to get ready and go."
The Tigers have their first off-week of the season before making a road trip to play at West Virginia a week from Thursday.
"We don't have a regular week this week but we do have a lot of good teams coming up that we definitely have to improve on," Tuberville said. "I am very disappointed obviously in this loss, but again you have to give Arkansas credit. They came in and executed very, very well."
As bitter as the loss was for Tuberville, it was that sweet for Petrino on his return to Auburn where he was offensive coordinator in 2002. "It was a great football game," Petrino said. "They made plays, we made plays. Our players really stepped up and executed and played with a lot of heart. It was very hard fought. We hung on and won the game at the end."
Arkansas won the toss and deferred. Auburn got the ball first going against a strong wind. With Burns making his second start of the season, the Tigers went three-and-out.
The Razorbacks, for the first time this season, scored on their opening drive by marching 71 yards on 13 plays before settling for a 27-yard field goal by Shay Haddock.
However, the lead was erased on the following kickoff as Tristan Davis caught the ball near the right hash mark at his three, angled toward the left sideline and ran untouched for Auburn's first kickoff return touchdown since Brad Lester did it in 1995 vs. Ball State.
The Tigers had a chance to stretch the lead by adding another touchdown early in the second quarter after Neiko Thorpe's 39-yard interception return. Three plays later Rod Smith dropped a pass in the end zone and on the next play Wes Byrum kicked a 45-yard field goal to end his streak of three consecutive misses. That put the Tigers on top 10-3 with 12:05 left to play.
Neiko Thorpe returns his first college interception.
With the offensive line protecting quarterback Dick and opening running lanes for tailback Smith, the Razorbacks controlled the football in the first half and finally cashed in with a touchdown at the 6:42 mark with Dick scoring untouched on fourth a goal from the one. He faked a handoff to Smith and ran across the goal line at right end. That tied the score at 10-10.
The Tigers had their only drive of the first half on the next series, moving from their 31 to the Arkansas 19 before a Burns pass to Terrell Zachery was deflected and intercepted.
Auburn managed only 53 yards of total offense in the first half to 244 for the Razorbacks, but a second Arkansas turnover set up another field goal for the Tigers.
Middle linebacker Josh Bynes intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 31 yards to the Arkansas 19 with 45 seconds left before intermission.
Chris Todd got the call at quarterback. After two incomplete passes, an option pitch to Ben Tate at left end was stopped for no gain and Byrum put the Tigers up 13-10 with a 36-yard field goal.
The second half couldn't have started much better for Auburn as Tristan Davis caused a fumble on the kickoff and Chris Evans recovered on the Arkansas 24. Todd came in and got the drive going. His 13-yard pass to Montez Billings gave the Tigers a first and goal at the seven. Three plays later, at the three, the Tigers lined up in double tight ends and shotgun. Burns powered in for the score to put the Tigers up 20-10.
The Razorbacks cut Auburn's lead to 20-16 by driving 62 yards on nine plays in the third quarter. The score, on a third and goal play, came on a reverse pass play from Joe Adams to Dick who was wide open at the goal line with 3:02 left in the quarter.
Arkansas cut the gap to 20-19 with 14:07 to play after a poorly-thrown pass by Todd was intercepted Adrian Davis giving the Razorbacks possession at the AU 23.
The Auburn defense held, forced a 44-yard field goal, which Haddock made with a strong wind at his back.
With Burns at quarterback, the Tigers moved from their 36 to the Arkansas 16 before stalling there. Byrum, who had made his first two kicks, pushed a 33-yarder wide right with 10:44 to play.
Four plays later, Smith raced up the middle for 63 yards for a touchdown and a 25-20 lead as the two-point pass failed. Dick said he called an audible at the line of scrimmage based on how the Auburn defensive line was set up and the play worked perfectly as Smith evaded tackles from Zac Etheridge and Thorpe after breaking into the secondary.
Auburn then went to Todd with 8:50 left from its own 25, but back-to-back sacks and a deflected pass forced Clinton Durst to punt out of his end zone on fourth and 32. He nailed a beauty into the wind, forcing Arkansas to start at its 48.
The Tigers got the ball back at their 20 with 5:52 for the drive that ended at the four. The big plays were passes for 14 yards to Rod Smith, 38 to Tim Hawthorne and 11 to Derek Winter.
However, the Tigers couldn't make a play in the clutch and allowed the Razorbacks to improve their record to 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the SEC.
The loss was a tough pill for senior receiver Smith to swallow. "We just can't catch a break right now," he said. "Maybe it is going to happen for us. We just have to keep moving forward."