AUBURN, Ala. — Arkansas traveled to Auburn determined to show it was a much-improved team after stumbling through its first season under coach Bret Bielema.
The first half in Jordan-Hare Stadium proved the Razorbacks have made strides.
But the second half made it clear Arkansas still has a ways to go.
Arkansas overcame an early deficit to battle its way into a halftime tie against the sixth-ranked Tigers, but Auburn took control in the second half and cruised to a 45-21 win in front of capacity crowd of 87,451 in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall combined to complete 16 of 22 passes for 293 yards and 2 touchdowns against Arkansas’ defense, which struggled in its first game under coordinator Robb Smith. And Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead turned in the game-breaking play when he intercepted a pass from Brandon Allen and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
It helped Auburn take a successful step in defending the 2013 SEC Championship, while Arkansas lost its school-record, 10th straight under Bielema. It also was the Razorbacks’ 12th straight conference loss dating back to the 2012 season.
“We can play with them. We can play with the big guys,” Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry said. “We’re a different team than last year. We just have to sustain it. We have to play four quarters. We can’t just come in at halftime happy.”
It’s hard to argue with Henry’s assessment.
Arkansas did show growth in the passing offense, which was one of the nation’s worst last season. The offensive line opened gaping holes in the first half for its trio of running backs. And Arkansas’ run defense had some success slowing an Auburn ground game that led the nation in rushing yards a game in 2013.
The problem? It all changed in the second half when Arkansas was outscored 24-0.
“I thought our guys in the opening two quarters survived and persevered through some things we had to weather through,” Bielema said. “We thought at halftime coming in, if we could just go out and match that effort in the second half …
“Give Auburn credit. They were able to do it and we weren’t.”
There were plenty of flaws in Arkansas’ opening test. Most of them came from the defense, which was repeatedly beaten by Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson’s arm in the first half. Then it was run over in the second half.
Johnson started, while senior Nick Marshall served his punishment for his offseason citation for possession of marijuana. The sophomore was sharp during his first SEC start, completing his first eight pass to six different receivers. Johnson led the Tigers to three early touchdowns and finished 12-for-16 for 243 yards.
“They have great play action,” Arkansas safety Alan Turner said. “What they do, they do very well. We got out of position with the play fakes and they have great athletes at receiver. They get them in space with that offense.”
The Tigers — who worked on improving their passing attack in the offseason — took a 21-7 lead when Johnson threw his second touchdown pass, an 18-yard strike to junior college transfer Duke Williams (9 catches, 154 yards).
“Jeremy did an outstanding job,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “The way he handled himself was really nice.”
But Johnson and the early deficit didn’t deter Arkansas.
Allen, who began his second season as Arkansas’ starter, led the Razorbacks on two touchdown drives to tie the game late in the first half. He capped the first with a 17-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Derby. The second was a 10-play, 97-yard drive that Jonathan Williams finished with a 6-yard touchdown run.
Arkansas went to the locker room with plenty of confidence, too, after Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson banged a 42-yard attempt off the upright as time expired.
“We were ready,” defensive end Trey Flowers said about the feeling in the locker room at halftime. “Everybody believed. We knew that the whole world was against us and we knew we had the momentum on our side.”
But Auburn changed quarterbacks. And its defense changed the game.
Marshall — who Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said would play at some point in the opener — made an impact with his legs right away on the opening series. The senior led Auburn on a 9-play, 78-yard drive to start the second half, finishing it with a 19-yard touchdown run to give Auburn a 28-21 lead.
Then the Auburn defense came up with the key moment. Defensive back Robensen Therezie — who had an eligibility issue and wasn’t cleared to play until Friday night — came off the edge on a blitz, hit Allen and forced the quarterback to float a pass downfield. Whitehead caught the ball and raced to the end zone.
The 33-yard return gave Auburn a 35-21 lead late in the third quarter.
“I was trying to get the ball out before I got hit,” Allen said. “He ended up hitting me right as I was throwing it and it kind of just shot up in the air.”
Said Bielema: “Obviously that’s a huge swing, not only in the points, but it hits you in the stomach and takes a lot of energy out of the sidelines.”
Auburn pushed its lead to 38-21 before a lightning delay stopped the game with 9:55 remaining. Play resumed after an 88-minute delay and the Razorbacks couldn’t challenge. The Tigers wrapped up their second straight win against the Hogs.
Running back Cameron Artis-Payne did most of the damage in the final 10 minutes, gashing Arkansas defense. He finished with 177 yards on 26 carries.
Artis-Payne was part of an offense that finished with 595 yards. Arkansas had 328.
Allen went 18-for-31 for 175 yards with 2 touchdowns and the interception, while running backs Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall combined to gain 147 yards. But almost all of the production came earlier against the Tigers.
Bielema felt the offense began pressing when Arkansas fell behind by two touchdowns and began to abandon the ground game. Arkansas had 61 yards — two yards on eight rushing attempts — in the second half.
“We stalled out a lot,” Allen said. “We couldn’t really get any momentum on offense. Couldn’t really get any drives started. We really just stalled out.”
So it led to a familiar result for the Razorbacks in their rebuilding process.
Arkansas came to Auburn looking for redemption after last season’s struggles, but couldn’t make the most of the opportunity in the second half. Bielema said the key for his team now is making sure the loss doesn’t sting long.
The Razorbacks play their home opener against Nicholls State next Saturday.
“We can’t let Auburn get us twice,” Bielema said. “We can’t let one loss define us or define our season. We’ve got an opportunity to bounce back here against Nicholls State and obviously the rest of the season.”