Special team woes cost Razorbacks in loss to Auburn

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, September 23, 2018
Auburn receiver Ryan Davis returns a punt during the fourth quarter of a game against Arkansas on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Auburn, Ala.
Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Auburn receiver Ryan Davis returns a punt during the fourth quarter of a game against Arkansas on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Auburn, Ala.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The University of Arkansas packed its backbone on its first SEC road trip under Coach Chad Morris, but the Razorbacks were undone by a series of special teams gaffes and could not generate enough offense to log an upset of Auburn.

The No. 9 Tigers scored on Noah Igbinoghene's 96-yard kickoff return and also cashed in points after two long punt returns by Ryan Davis to thump Arkansas 34-3 before a crowd of 84,188 at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.

Arkansas (1-3, 0-1 SEC) made strides after last week's humiliating home loss to North Texas, but did not have enough firepower to sustain drives against the Tigers (3-1, 1-1).

Arkansas beat the Tigers in total offense by a 290-225 margin and in yards per play at 4.1 to 3.9, but Auburn did not have to drive far or sometimes at all to put up points.

The Tigers had 95 yards on 3 punt returns and turned those into 17 points on drives no longer than 27 yards.

Arkansas posted four sacks, stopped a fourth-and-1 play at its 8-yard line and held the Tigers to 91 rushing yards.

"That's a credit to Coach [John] Chavis and our defensive staff," Morris said. "We had a great plan and the players believed in that plan, to hold a football team, an offense of this caliber like we did."

The Razorbacks got a lift from linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who played for the first time since the first half of the season opener and posted 8 tackles, a sack and 3 tackles for loss.

"I just think as a defense we had a really good week of practice," Greenlaw said. "They have tendencies that they like to do and I think defensively we just went out there and fought."

Morris lost in his first matchup as head coaches against his buddy, Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn. The men shared a brief conversation during pregame warmups and a warm handshake afterward.

Auburn won its third in a row in the series and improved to 5-1 against Arkansas under Malzahn, but they did not do it by hammering the Razorbacks into submission. The Tigers have won the last three games in the series by a combined 116 points, the second-worst three-game differential for Arkansas against an SEC opponent.

Arkansas outgained the Tigers in total offense, but the Hogs had longer fields to negotiate and finished 3 of 17 on third-down conversions. The Tigers' average starting field position for the first half was the Arkansas 46 and its average start for the game was the Hogs' 49.

Quarterback Ty Storey made his second start and went the distance for the Razorbacks for the first time this year.

"Really, our goal was to put pressure on the quarterback, and I feel like we disrupted the quarterback," Malzahn said.

Storey completed 13 of 31 passes for 141 yards and ran 12 times for 44 yards. He threw one interception and the Tigers won the turnover battle 2-0, including forcing and recovering the first Arkansas fumble of the season.

Arkansas' streak without a touchdown at Auburn reached 10 quarters dating back to the first half of a 45-21 loss in 2014.

"We've got to score more than three points," Storey said. "Obviously when you only score three points there's something you've got to fix and it starts with me."

The Razorbacks got their only points on Connor Limpert's 29-yard field goal after a 68-yard drive early in the third quarter. The score cut the Hogs' deficit to 17-3, but that didn't last long as Igbinoghene scored on the ensuing kickoff.

"This was one of the better special teams performances we've had in a while." Malzahn said. "We just did a super job. We either blocked one or two punts. ... We returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and that was really big."

Arkansas' poor kicking game included a number of missed tackles in coverage and a missed 40-yard field goal by Limpert in the first half.

"It's really frustrating, man," Greenlaw said. "But the game of football is offense, defense and special teams. Regardless, if you see stuff like that happen on special teams, it's going to affect the football game. It's hard to come back from stuff like that."

Said Morris, "We'll go back and look at personnel and see how that worked. We'll look at scheme, see what they were doing and if there were any tips or tendencies. But we'll go back to work is the first thing we're going to do."

Davis set up 10 points with punt returns of 48 and 36 yards.

The Tigers also converted a partially deflected punt into a touchdown late in the second quarter to to go ahead 17-0.

Rakeem Boyd rushed for 66 yards to lead the Razorbacks, and he also had 2 receptions for 39 yards for 105 all-purpose yards.

The Arkansas defense posted four sacks -- one each by McTelvin Agim, Greenlaw, Ryan Pulley and Randy Ramsey -- and had a fourth-and-1 stop at its 8-yard line.

Auburn managed only 91 rushing yards, with 47 coming on a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham went 15-of-22 passing for 134 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions.

"We didn't play very good offensively, but we played great defensively," Malzahn said.

Auburn freshman JaTarvious Whitlow had two rushing touchdowns among his 13 carries for 49 yards.

Auburn's return game -- on special teams and on defense -- was the story of the first half as the Razorbacks struggled with field position and penalties while outgaining the Tigers 150-135 in total offense.

Davis returned Arkansas' first punt 48 yards to the Hogs' 27 to set the tone, but the Tigers would have two long returns on takeaways and a deflected punt return inside the Arkansas 10 before the half was over.

Whitlow's 5-yard touchdown run up the middle gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead at the 10:36 mark of the first quarter to cap the seven-play drive from the 27.

Arkansas immediately drove 52 yards to the Auburn 23 to get into scoring range. Jared Cornelius caught consecutive passes from Storey for 15 yards as the Hogs reached mid-field. Storey stepped up in the pocket and hit Deon Stewart on third and 10 for a 28-yard gain to the Auburn 20.

After an illegal substitution penalty, the first of two in the half for Arkansas, Limpert missed a 40-yard field goal attempt wide left on the Razorbacks' best scoring opportunity of the half.

Arkansas took over at its 36 after Anders Carlson missed a 54-yard field goal, but Chase Hayden had the ball pried away by Igbinoghene after a 6-yard gain -- the first fumble of the year for the Hogs -- and Daniel Thomas returned the loose ball 40 yards to the Arkansas 2.

The Razorbacks bowed up, with Randy Ramsey recording a 2-yard tackle for loss. Stidham overthrew a receiver on second down, then could not reach the end zone on his third-down scramble, leading to Carlson's 18-yard field goal.

Arkansas drove to the 50 just before halftime. Javaris Davis intercepted Storey's deep shot for La'Michael Pettway and ran through multiple Razorbacks before barreling into the end zone for an 80-yard return. A block in the back nullified the return, and Carlson missed a 50-yard field goal on the final play of the half.

Sports on 09/23/2018

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