Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
No. 6 Auburn 45, Arkansas 21:
Arkansas dives in, fizzles out
Hogs can't sustain first half success
Auburn running back Corey Grant (20) breaks free from Arkansas linebacker Randy Ramsey (11) and runs for a first down during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn defeated Arkansas 45-21. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
AUBURN, Ala. -- Arkansas battled back from a two-touchdown deficit to force a halftime tie, but No. 6 Auburn parlayed an interception return for a touchdown and the spark provided by quarterback Nick Marshall into a dominating second half and a 45-21 season-opening victory on Saturday.
The Tigers outscored Arkansas 24-0 in the second half, holding the Razorbacks to 61 total yards and 2 rushing yards to take control as they began defense of their 2013 SEC championship before a capacity crowd of 87,451 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Arkansas' streak of seven season-opening victories came to an end as did Coach Bret Bielema's 8-0 career record in openers. Arkansas lost its 10th consecutive game overall, extending a school record, and dropped its 13th SEC game in a row.
"Two quarters of football that we can live with but two that we can't," Bielema said.
"We know as a team, we can play with the best," said Arkansas tight end AJ Derby, who caught his first touchdown pass in the second quarter. "We proved that in the first half, but we've got to play four quarters and we didn't do that today."
Arkansas rushed for 151 yards in the first half, averaging 7.2 yards per carry, and had 267 total yards and were tied 21-21 at halftime.
But the Razorbacks, whose assistant coaches in the press box were stuck in an elevator and could not get down to the locker room at halftime, had two first downs in the second half and lost all momentum.
"The second half we kind of stalled out a lot and couldn't really get any momentum going on offense," quarterback Brandon Allen said.
"When we started stopping the run in the second half that was a huge change," Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn said. "Give Arkansas credit, they're a much-improved team and they're going to win a lot of games this year."
Saturday's game represented the first time Arkansas had opened a season with a conference game in 34 years, and it lasted nearly five hours thanks to an 88-minute delay early in the fourth quarter because of lightning in the area.
The Razorbacks showed a more balance on offense than they did through most of the 2013 season, but they struggled to control the passing of 6-5 Jeremy Johnson in the first half and the Marshall-led running attack in the second.
Arkansas limited the Tigers, the nation's top rushing team last year, to 68 yards on 18 carries in the first half. But then came Marshall, who was suspended for the first half because of his citation for marijuana possession in July, and he immediately put more potency in Auburn's hurry-up offense.
The Tigers wound up with 595 total yards, including 302 on the ground, only 26 off their NCAA-best average of 328 rushing yards per game last year.
Cameron Artis-Payne rushed for 177 yards and a touchdown, while Corey Grant added 87 rushing yards and a score.
Alex Collins gained 70 yards in the first half, but finishing the game with 68. Korliss Marshall added 45 yards and Jonathan Williams had 34 yards and a touchdown.
Allen completed 18 of 31 passes for 175 yards, but he could've had more, as Keon Hatcher, running a couple of steps behind a defender, dropped a deep pass about 45 yards down field late in the first quarter. That drive eventually reached the Auburn 35, but the Razorbacks punted from there.
Marshall's first series resulted in a 78-yard touchdown drive, capped by his 19-yard run through the middle for a 28-21 Auburn lead.
The game's key moment came with Auburn leading 28-21 late in the third quarter and Arkansas facing second-and-7 from its 18. Auburn safety Robenson Therezie, whose eligibility for the opener was cleared late Friday night, got in Allen's face and made contact as Allen released the pass. The result was a wobbler over the middle, which was easily intercepted by Jeremaine Whitehead, who followed a pack of blockers over the left side for a 33-yard touchdown return.
Allen has thrown three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in his past nine games. Texas A&M returned an Allen pass for a touchdown in the Hogs' 2013 SEC opener.
Johnson, a 6-5 sophomore, guided the Tigers to touchdowns on their first three possessions. He completed 12 of 16 passes for 243 yards and 2 touchdowns while playing the entire first half.
Johnson completed his first eight passes for 204 yards, working over the middle of Arkansas' defense. The last of the eight completions was an 18-yard touchdown pass to D'haquille Williams for a tackle-breaking touchdown and a 21-7 Auburn lead.
The Razorbacks fought back, aided by the defense's back-to-back stops of Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne on third-and-1 plays, the first by linebacker Brooks Ellis and the next a group effort from Alabama natives Trey Flowers and Darius Philon.
Allen found Demetrius Wilson for completions of 11 and 26 yards to ignite Arkansas' first possession of the second quarter. A defensive holding call on the Tigers and Jeremy Sprinkle's 10-yard catch and run moved Arkansas to the 17, then Allen executed a play-action fake and found tight end AJ Derby alone for a touchdown.
The Razorbacks started from their 7 after holding the Tigers as D.J. Dean fielded a 62-yard punt inside his 10-yard line.
The poor field position didn't faze the Hogs.
Korliss Marshall had runs of 8 and 3 yards before leaving with a bruised arm, then Collins ripped off 29 yards on the next two snaps to push Arkansas near midfield. Consecutive completions to Wilson and Derby for a combined 32 yards moved Arkansas into the red zone. Williams took it from there, going 11 yards with a toss right, then the final 6 with a toss left. John Henson's extra point tied the game 21-21.
Auburn moved into scoring range late in the half, but Daniel Carlson's 42-yard field goal try dinged off the right upright and back into the end zone.
Sports on 08/31/2014