AUBURN, Ala. — Original explanations for an Arkansas loss exhausted, the Razorbacks got me off the hook with something new.
Arkansas registered its first W in more than a month by refusing to shrink from a moment that was identified with rare clarity. Leading by 10 for more than 24 minutes, but unable to manufacture a first down in the third quarter, the Razorbacks’ suspect secondary blew the coverage and Auburn scored on a 21-yard pass.
Embarrassed to the point that their demise has ceased to be a national story, a lesser group could have gone into a shell. Instead, they attacked.
Maybe it was Paul Petrino calling the plays from the pressbox for the first time.
Maybe it was inspiring words in the huddle from quarterback Tyler Wilson or some other senior.
Maybe it was a group of athletes tired of being the butt of jokes.
The less sexy, but more accurate answer is that the Razorbacks did a lot of things right. Basic football-winning things like protecting Wilson most of the time, tackling decently, competing when things went Auburn’s way, winning the turnover battle 5-2, and recording eight sacks. To that last point, Trey Flowers looked like an all-conference performer at times.
Whatever the reason, it was more enjoyable than the 110-10 in Arkansas’ first two Southeastern Conference games.
Before going overboard, know that the opponent was a very average SEC opponent without a go-to guy at quarterback and that nothing will come easy for this Arkansas team.
Back to that moment in the fourth quarter when it was 10-7. Facing second-and-5, Wilson’s pass to Mekale McKay was good for 7 yards and Arkansas’ initial first down since late in the second quarter.
From the Arkansas 38, Austin Tate was late to the huddle and Wilson filled him in on the play, tipping the defense that the tight end would not be involved. Wilson rolled right, reversed his field, and, lo and behold, found Tate for 18. Arkansas followed up on a holding penalty against Auburn with a sucker play straight from the playground — the wide receiver takes a pitch, pulls up, and throws a pass. The passer was former quarterback Brandon Mitchell, who allowed Javontee Herndon to run under the ball in the end zone.
At that point, the ear-shattering “We Must Protect This House,” with the equally loud “I Will. I Will” was nothing but an empty threat.
Sure, Arkansas got some breaks — Clint Moseley overthrowing Emory Blake far behind Davyon McKinney, cornerback Joshua Holsey dropping Wilson’s pass at the Arkansas 15, free-running Onterio McCalebb being unable to handle a third-down pass in the flat — but those things happen.
If nothing else, the law of averages was on Arkansas’ side.
The Razorbacks had not had a turnover in more than 14 quarters when Ross Rasner separated Blake from the ball in the second quarter —good tackling does that — and Will Hines’ recovery resulted in a two-possession lead.
The difference between Wilson and Auburn’s quarterback — whether starter Kiehl Frazier or replacement Moseley, was obvious. Wilson made good decisions and threw on target; often, Frazier couldn’t pull the trigger and Moseley missed receivers. In the post-game, Auburn announcers were musing about No. 12 vs. No. 15 in the weeks ahead.
Regularly in the first half, Arkansas’ offensive line benefited from the design of pass plays — Wilson making a good fake to a back going with the flow and then rolling the other way to find a receiver who delayed his entrance into the pattern.
The tongue-in-cheek explanation for the success of Arkansas’ offense is that Wilson spent a season dreaded going to the sideline to be berated by Bobby Petrino and that he was at ease knowing there was no Petrino waiting for him after a mistake.
In the final minute, Holsey celebrated a whopper of a hit on Arkansas’ Terrell Williams on a punt. Twenty four seconds later, Arkansas celebrated the only thing that really matters.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.