FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema didn’t second-guess his decision late in the first half, when his team had the ball at Auburn’s goal line.
It was four-down territory. The Razorbacks trailed, but could gain much-needed momentum by punching the ball into the end zone for the first time in weeks.
“I said all the way through, we’re going to come away with a touchdown here or we’re going to die trying,” Bielema said.
Arkansas’ failed on two straight plays and it proved to one of the defining moments of Auburn’s 35-17 win in front of an announced crowd of 66,835 in Razorback Stadium. Bielema and the Razorbacks pulled out all the stops — trick plays, onside kicks and fourth-down gambles — in hopes of breaking its five-game losing streak in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s return to Fayetteville.
But it didn’t work.
Red-zone woes in the first half, two pass interference penalties in the second half and an inability to slow Auburn’s ground game throughout led to Arkansas’ sixth straight loss and the program’s first 0-5 start in Southeastern Conference play since 2005. It’s also the program’s longest losing streak since Jack Crowe’s 1990 team lost seven in a row.
Auburn running back Tre Mason, meanwhile, powered the SEC’s most potent ground game to the Tigers’ fifth straight win. Mason scored four touchdowns — including a backbreaking 12-yard run with 10:17 remaining — to help Malzahn enjoy a happy homecoming with his first win in Fayetteville as an opposing coach.
“It’s just about getting our eighth win,” Malzahn said about his return. “I’ve got a lot of friends, a lot of family (here). This is a special place, but you separate that. You’ve got a job to do. I’m just very proud of our team coming in here getting the victory.”
The game had plenty of intrigue because of the history between Bielema and Malzahn, who returned to Arkansas as a head coach for the first time.
The rivalry began last July when their philosophical differences — Bielema’s “normal American football” vs. Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle — played out at SEC Media Days. The flame was fanned earlier this week when Bielema reported Auburn (8-1, 4-1) to the conference office because it left a “swinging gate” formation out of the game film it provided Arkansas (3-6, 0-5).
It carried over to the field Saturday night, beginning with a pregame chat near midfield with the coaches surrounded by cameras. There was more drama on the field, too, with Bielema giving the green light for halfback passes, reverses and an onside kick attempt in hopes of getting the best of Malzahn.
Bielema even flipped the script on his counterpart by running a “swinging gate” formation on a fourth-and-3 play near the Auburn goal line. Backup quarterback Brian Buehner completed a pass to tight end Austin Tate a first down.
“You guys read too much into that,” Bielema said about the play. “I didn’t even call it a gate. We didn’t call it a Swinging Gate. It’s called ‘Field Goal Buehner’ because Buehner’s in there. Buehner went in and Brey Cook comes out. We put it in on, practiced it one time Tuesday, one time Thursday and out there today.”
To make things even more interesting, ESPN’s cameras caught Auburn’s Anthony Swain dropping to the turf after the play. He was helped off the field after a few minutes. Malzahn was asked if Swain faked the injury, which is something the coach has spoken out against as teams try to slow his hurry-up offense.
“He got hurt. We went and got him. That’s all I know,” Malzhan said. “We don’t tell our kids to fake.”
Once play resumed, Arkansas scored a touchdown on fullback Kiero Small’s 2-yard run to start the fourth quarter. It cut Auburn’s lead to 28-17.
But it was as close as the Razorbacks could get to their first win since Sept. 14.
Auburn marched 73 yards in 10 plays after the Arkansas touchdown to score once again. Quarterback Nick Marshall began the drive with a 28-yard run, but fumbled at the end of it. Four Arkansas players were around the ball, but couldn’t fall on it.
Mason scored from 12 yards out to cap the drive and make it 35-17.
“I never know what it’s going to be like going into a game, but I kind of got rolling,” Mason said about his success Saturday. “We run a fast-paced offense, so I was getting into my zone, and that’s the way it panned out.”
Auburn outgained Arkansas 366-346 despite running 19 fewer plays. Marshall and backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson combined to throw only nine passes, but completed eight of them for 133 yards. It included Marshall’s 88-yard touchdown pass to receiver Sammie Coates to give the Tigers a 28-3 lead.
Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen completed 10-of-22 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown. Jonathan Williams rushed for 104 yards, while Alex Collins added 92 more. They helped the Razorbacks end two lengthy droughts against the Tigers.
The first came when place kicker Zach Hocker’s 34-yard field goal became Arkansas’ first points since the first quarter of the South Carolina loss on Oct. 12. The Razorbacks went 134 minutes, 10 seconds without a point in between and was outscored 111-0 during the stretch by South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn.
Allen’s 13-yard pass to receiver Keon Hatcher in the third quarter also was the team’s first touchdown since the South Carolina game. The drought spanned 155 minutes, 51 seconds. It also was Arkansas’ first touchdown pass since Sept. 29.
“I looked up and the ball was right there,” Hatcher said about his touchdown catch. “It couldn’t be more perfect than that.”
But the night was filled with frustration because of Arkansas’ mistakes.
Allen left the field after getting a cleat in the shin early in the first quarter and was replaced by backup AJ Derby, who committed two turnovers on eight plays to wipe out a promising start. Allen returned, but the offense managed only three points on three trips inside Auburn’s 20-yard line in the first half.
“It’s us against them. It’s their 11 against our 11 and they won,” Williams said about Auburn’s goal line stand. “That’s something we can’t continue to let happen.”
Bielema is the fourth Arkansas coach to suffer a six-game losing streak in his first season, joining Otis Douglas (1950), Frank Broyles (1958) and Jack Crowe (1990).
His team also has its back against the wall for the final three games. Arkansas must beat Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU to become bowl eligible.
“You make your own breaks,” Bielema said of Arkansas’ missed opportunities Saturday. “You create your own luck. I understand the ball bounces a certain ways at time. I’d much rather get all these bad bounces out of our system now so that it will start creating some great advantages when the ball bounces our way a little bit.”