Arkansas vs. Auburn:

It's 4th-and-1 from the get-go

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Monday, August 25, 2014
Arkansas receiver Keon Hatcher is taken down by Auburn defender Ryan White as he makes a catch inside the 5 yard line during the second quarter of a Nov. 2, 2013 game at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas receiver Keon Hatcher is taken down by Auburn defender Ryan White as he makes a catch inside the 5 yard line during the second quarter of a Nov. 2, 2013 game at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas has played its season opener against Football Championship Subdivision opponents five of the last six years.

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That run of season-opening games that amounted to tuneups comes to a halt on Saturday.

The Razorbacks open the season at No. 6 Auburn, the defending SEC champion, who surprised college football with a run to the BCS national championship game last year under first-year Coach Gus Malzahn.

The high-profile opener, set up to accommodate the SEC Network's debut season, has served as an attention grabber for the Razorbacks throughout their off-season after a 3-9 debut under Coach Bret Bielema.

"It's huge," Arkansas senior tackle Brey Cook said of the Razorbacks' first season opener against a conference team since opening against Texas in 1980. "It's motivation.

"You get tired and -- no, you're not tired, you've got Auburn coming up. There's no excuses. You've got Auburn coming up."

Bielema said having Auburn to open the schedule helped keep the Hogs' focus sharp.

"It has changed the dynamics since January, I think, to play a game of that caliber up front, especially the season they had and being obviously a school we play against every year and recruit against and all that," Bielema said.

Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn, the Fort Smith native and former Arkansas offensive coordinator, knows it'll be a unique situation for both teams on Saturday.

"I tell you what, that's definitely a challenge any time you open up you season against a conference team," Malzahn said. "We do have a lot of our guys back. We're playing at home. But we really expect Arkansas to be much improved. We know we're going to have to play well."

The Razorbacks have won seven season openers in a row since falling to Southern California 50-14 to open the 2006 season. Last year's 34-14 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette in the opener was arguably the Hogs' most complete game, and they're hoping to be even sharper at Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend.

"We're always going to work hard, but I will say that when you're opening against a good team like Auburn ... that's a lot of motivation," senior safety Alan Turner said. "You know when you play a team like Auburn, you've got to play your best, so we're hoping we can play our best and get the results we want."

Arkansas began repping its specific plans against Auburn midway through last week, but the general blueprint of schemes and formations have been months in the making.

"In all honesty, we've been looking at Auburn for a long time, so it doesn't really feel like a new experience," Arkansas running backs coach Joel Thomas said late last week. "We have to come with our A-game to make this a good game."


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Quarterback Brandon Allen said he and other teammates have been studying tape on the Tigers throughout the off-season.

"We're seeing the mistakes we made against them last year and we're really trying not to beat ourselves," Allen said.

"They mix up a lot of their coverages and their blitzes. They throw a lot of different things at you, and that's something that they do very well. So we need to prepare for everything that they're going to throw against us. We've just got to be ready for it."

The Arkansas defense might have an even tougher task in the opener.

Auburn is on the leading edge of the "tempo" offense rage, a hurry-up approach that capitalizes on the clock rules to hustle to the line of scrimmage and scan for defensive weaknesses all while hoping to force mistakes from fatigued defenders.

Preparing to defend the attack in the anticipated scorching conditions on Saturday will require discipline of the mind, conditioning of the body and repetitions of that game-like feel to cope with the style.

The good thing for Arkansas is its scout team had plenty of preparation time to simulate the up-tempo approach.

"You can kind of condition for them and you can prepare your scouts, because the scouts are a big part of it," linebacker TQ Coleman said.

The Razorbacks' scout team on offense has been trying to simulate the speed at which Auburn plays, and redshirt freshman Damon "Duwop" Mitchell, who will line up at receiver against the Tigers, has been playing the role of dual-threat quarterbacks Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson.

"It's hard to kind of implement the scouts to give us a look when they don't really know how to do it, but when they've got more time to study Auburn's offense, it gives us a good look to what Auburn is actually going to do," Coleman said.

"In order for us to do things we need to do, we've got to be very disciplined in our approach," defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. "We've got to make sure we're taking away the dive, the quarterback, any throw off of that. So we've spent a lot of time in the film room, a lot of time just making sure we understand our system and how we need to operate."

Sports on 08/25/2014

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