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Inflection - The Arkansas Game

Photo by Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers

Auburn has taken care of business the past two weeks. And while there’s something to be said for that given what this program has endured over the past few years, this Saturday’s task seems to pose a new threat.

While Hugh Freeze’s squad finds itself once again in a matchup with a team that on paper seems to be below Auburn in the pecking order of the SEC West, the Razorbacks are just different.

In Sam Pittman’s fourth year, Arkansas has had about as weird of a 3-6 season as one could imagine. Losses to BYU and Mississippi State, a close win to Kent State at home, and three losses to top 25 teams, Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss, all on the road by a combined 9 points.

But following a demoralizing 7-3 loss at home to Mississippi State that led to the removal of first year offensive coordinator Dan Enos, Pittman and the Razorbacks decided to hone in their rushing attack and found a spark down in the swamp.

KJ Jefferson and Rocket Sanders' combined 200 yards on the ground gave Arkansas the program’s first ever win in Gainesville, FL in a 39-36 overtime thriller and a sense of belief with the Tigers coming to town.

“It is just amazing some of the tackles he gets out of and then extends plays,” Hugh Freeze said of Arkansas quarterback, KJ Jefferson, on Monday. “That is certainly an area we got to look at. If you watch him enough you know you’re not going to get him on the ground every single time. You just hope those are not explosive runs or explosive passes that happen after you miss him. He is very strong and very difficult to get on the ground.”

Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers

Jefferson, a three time captain at Arkansas, led this rejuvenated offense with three touchdowns, two on the ground and one through the air. Alongside the talented quarterback, Rocket Sanders looked like his old self in the win at Florida rushing for a season-high 103 yards on 18 carries to become Arkansas’ first 100-yard rusher of the 2023 campaign.

“This is not saying that we will have the greatest plan to stop them, but I think it is pretty clear that they were frustrated with what they were doing. I think it is a pretty stark difference,” Freeze said. “The guy who is calling it now, background is with the former offensive coordinator, so I think it’s a pretty good bet that you can throw a lot of film out, unless you are just looking at personnel and probably need to pull a few games from last year, in my opinion, to go with what they did at Florida.”

Similar to the Razorbacks, Freeze’s offense has seemed to also find a stride in the past two weeks with a particular ground success on the road last weekend in Nashville, TN. Jarquez Hunter spearheaded the rushing attack, with a career-best 183 rushing yards and finding the end zone twice with impressive runs of 67 and 56 yards. Particularly noteworthy was Hunter's explosive first quarter, where he had 121 rushing yards with longs of 67 and 56.

And with what was already a successful offensive showing for the preseason All-SEC pick, Hunter could’ve had an even more dominant day with touchdowns called back due to penalties, something Auburn will have to limit in a true road environment on Saturday.

Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers

“We're starting to see some signs of some good things, but we have to clean up the ones that are not so good and make all the ones that come our way that we do have good calls and we actually execute it correctly. We had two touchdowns called back. Jarquez scored on two runs that were both called back. Both were good calls,” Freeze said.

“They were penalties, but neither one had to happen…We have to lock in and be a little more focused and clean some of those up or those will hurt us in these upcoming games.”

Complementing the ground game, Payton Thorne displayed completed 17 of 27 passes for 194 yards with receptions by nine different players, following up a game in which 11 caught the ball.

Thorne connected with Rivaldo Fairweather and Jeremiah Cobb for crucial touchdowns, contributing to Auburn's well-rounded offensive showcase. Additionally, Ja’Varrius Johnson played a key role in the passing game, hauling in three receptions for 62 yards.

The key for Thorne and this entire offense will be avoiding the big mistake, something the Razorbacks know how to capitalize on. Through nine games, Arkansas have scored a nation-leading four defensive touchdowns, including an SEC-best three interception return touchdowns.

Thorne’s pick six a week ago could’ve given life to a Vanderbilt team that was previously down multiple scores at home and caused Auburn’s previous offensive success to spiral out of control. But, Thorne’s improvement throughout the season to not dwell on the past and play the next play could once again be a crucial element in this Saturday’s contest.

“He said, ‘Coach, I swear I just did not see him.’ So, what do you say to that? ‘Play the next play.’ He had no excuse. It wasn’t, ‘I read the read coverage wrong.’ He said, ‘Coach, I just didn’t see the guy." And I said, “What do we always say? Don’t throw blind. You got it. Don’t throw blind.’ I mean, it happens to the best of them.” Freeze said about Thorne’s pick six against Vanderbilt.

Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers

Ironically, Auburn also has a knack for making the big play on the defensive end. With a game sealing interception last Saturday, the Tigers continued their now 18 game streak of getting a turnover, tying their most recent 18 game streak during the 2007-08 seasons.

Auburn joins Arkansas as one of 20 teams to return both an interception and fumble for a touchdown this season and currently lead the SEC in turnovers forced with 15 through nine games of their 2023 campaign.

“ I think he does a masterful job of calling the game”, Freeze said of Ron Roberts this past Monday.

In a potentially tight game where any big mistake could be the difference, look no further than these two defenses to try to once again give the other side of the ball a chance to pull out a win.

For both teams, the overall narrative of how this season is viewed is at stake on Saturday. Can Arkansas stay alive in bowl contention or is it a disappointing fourth season with Sam Pittman at the helm?

Is Auburn just a lower tier SEC team with much more of the rebuild to come or is seven to eight wins still on the table and Iron Bowl magic potentially in the air in a year one?

“I have been pretty open about the fact that going to a bowl game in year one is desired, needed and wanted. I want the extra practices. I want the seniors to be honored. I want our program and fans to still have the same energy moving into year two. All of that is a part of us getting to a bowl. We’ve been able to do that at each stop that we’ve taken over. I want to do it here, and I think our kids want to do it here. You have to earn it, and this is not an easy game on the road this week, for sure. We are going to have to earn it, but it’s something that we have put out there and we desire,” Freeze said.

Auburn and Arkansas will kickoff from Razorback Stadium at 3pm on the SEC Network. The game can be heard around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network.

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