AUBURN, Ala. — The noise coming from Arkansas players and coaches could be heard loud and clear in the bowels of Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The team bell, which signals important accomplishments, rang over and over again as the Razorbacks filed into the locker room. Once there, shouts of joy seeped through the brick walls. The clapping and cheering continued for several minutes as smiling players trickled one-by-one into the postgame interview room.
Arkansas didn’t beat a ranked team during its 24-7 win against Auburn in front of an announced crowd of 85,813. It didn’t win a championship either. But those details didn’t matter.
The Razorbacks’ locker room celebration was about another significant feat: Ending one of the most frustrating stretches in school history.
“We were pretty rowdy,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said about the locker room scene. “It’s that buildup of frustration. I guess everything that’s happened was released in there (Saturday), which was good. Now we can move forward.”
Arkansas’ early-season free fall came to a much-needed and very welcomed end against Auburn (1-4, 0-3 in SEC).
A maligned defense, which staked its claim among the nation’s worst units in September, led the way with eight sacks and five turnovers.
An offense which continued to struggle in the red zone came through when needed Saturday, too, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
It helped Arkansas (2-4, 1-2 in SEC) bury its longest losing streak since 2004 and avoid its worst start since 1958. It kept the Razorbacks out of the cellar in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference, too, pushing Auburn into the dubious spot and also gave Arkansas some hope after a 1-4 start.
“You want these guys to have success,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “You know how hard they work. If you would have seen us practice this last week, you would’ve said, ‘This is not a 1-4 football team.’ They went out and worked hard. And they had energy.
"So it’s a credit to them and the coaches for keeping them there.”
The performance came after Arkansas had been outscored 110-10 during its two SEC losses to Alabama and Texas A&M. The turnaround began with defense.
The Razorbacks were aggressive Saturday, harrassing quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley throughout the game. Defensive end Trey Flowers, a Huntsville, Ala., native, led the way with a career-high 3½ sacks in his home state.
“We didn’t want him back there feeling comfortable with himself,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. “But it wasn’t always blitzing. It was our four-man pressure. Our D-line played great (Saturday).
"They put a fire behind their ears and they got after it, which was good to see.”
Arkansas' feast of turnovers began with a fumble recovery in the second quarter, which was Arkansas’ first takeaway in more than 14 quarters. The Razorbacks grabbed four more before the day had ended, wrapping up the win with safety Ross Rasner’s interception in the end zone.
Arkansas bested both its 2012 sack total (seven in five games) and turnover total (two in five games) during its game-winning performance against the Tigers.
“We have a lot of guys that have been here for a long time,” Rasner said. “We knew how we can play. I think (Saturday) was our first real coming-out party of how we feel about ourselves as a defense. I think we came out to play in the way that we always thought we could.
"But we just hadn’t executed things like we did (Saturday).”
Auburn, which had two weeks to fix an offense that ranked among the nation’s worst after the first month of the season, continued to struggle.
The Tigers finished with 321 yards and could only find the end zone once. It has left the Tigers staring at their first 1-4 start since 1998.
“I certainly didn’t expect to play like we played,” coach Gene Chizik said. “But the reality of it is, (Saturday), we did all of the things you can’t do to win and we know that.”
Arkansas had some issues of its own offensively, which kept the game tight until the fourth quarter.
Missed red zone opportunities in first half and a third quarte, in which Arkansas managed just 20 yards on nine plays were the biggest problems.
Auburn finally took advantage of the struggles, finding something positive on offense trailing 10-0 late in the third quarter. Moseley capped Auburn’s only scoring drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to receiver Emory Blake to close the deficit to 10-7.
But Arkansas, which lost early leads in each of its past two games, didn’t fold Saturday.
“I told them at the beginning of the week we’re going to have 100 percent unwavering belief,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “So if something bad happens, just keep believing and keep fighting. That happened.”
Arkansas answered with a five-play, 75-yard drive and the big blow came on a trick play dialed up by Petrino.
The coach, who moved from the sideline to the press box for Saturday’s game, called a reverse pass that worked.
Wilson handed the ball to Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson, who then flipped it to Brandon Mitchell. The quarterback-turned-receiver threw a perfect strike to receiver Javontee Herndon in the back of the endzone for a 26-yard touchdown.
“He made a great throw,” Petrino said. “It was perfect, right on the money. The guy was coming at him as he threw it. It was a big-time play and I’m glad he made it.”
Wilson finished completing 20 of 27 passes for 216 yards. Johnson rushed for a game-high 76 yards on 17 carries, getting into the end zone twice. Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton also added 72 receiving yards on five catches in the win.
Fittingly, the defense made sure the touchdown and 10-point lead held up by forcing turnovers on Auburn’s final three possessions.
Auburn’s last gasp ended when Rasner outjumped an Auburn receiver in the end zone to pull in an interception and cap the victory.
Smith, with police officers flanking him on both sides, ran off the field clapping his hands after the postgame handshake with Chizik. Assistant coaches stuck around a little longer, congratulating players as they left the field. Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long was there, too, offering handshakes and hugs to players and coaches.
The Razorbacks then went to the corner of the end zone to sing the school’s fight song with the band, cheerleaders and other fans in attendance Saturday night.
It wasn’t a championship celebration. Arkansas is just 2-4 at the midway point of the season after all. But the Razorbacks now believe it can be the start of a strong finish.
“We can salvage some stuff,” Wilson said. “We can make it a season that, maybe not everybody wanted preseason, but definitely respectable.”
Kentucky at Arkansas
KICKOFF: 6 p.m. TV: Fox Sports Net.
WHERE: Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville.
RADIO: Razorback Sports Network.
SATELLITE RADIO: TBA.
RECORDS: Kentucky Wildcats, 1-5, 0-3 Southeastern Conference; Arkansas Razorbacks, 2-4, 1-2.
LAST GAME: Kentucky lost, 27-14, to Mississippi State on Saturday at Lexington, Ky.; Arkansas defeated Auburn, 24-7, on Saturday at Auburn, Ala.
COACHES: Kentucky, Joker Phillips (12-19, third season); Arkansas, John L. Smith (2-4, first season; 134-90 overall, 19th season).
SERIES: Kentucky leads 4-2.
LAST MEETING: Kentucky won 21-20 on Oct. 18, 2008, in Lexington, Ky., scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter after winning 42-29 on Sept. 22, 2007, at Fayetteville.