Ethan Westerman is a reporter for the Hawgs Sports Network. He has bachelor's degrees in journalism and marketing from the University of Arkansas.
'No question' Tigers punished Hogs on the ground
Auburn running back Jarquez Hunter, center right, tries to run past Arkansas linebacker Chris Paul Jr., center left, during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Fayetteville. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
FAYETTEVILLE — Going into Saturday’s game against Auburn, it was no secret stopping the run would be crucial for Arkansas if it wanted a chance at a victory.
In SEC-only games, the Tigers were third in the league averaging 178.5 rushing yards per game, and their passing offense ranked last with 140.7 yards per game.
It is fair to say that aspect of the game did, indeed, prove key. And it was not pretty for the team in cardinal and white.
Not only did the Razorbacks fail to slow the Tigers’ ground game, but they were gashed to the tune of a season-high 354 rushing yards allowed. Auburn averaged 6.4 yards per carry in a 48-10 runaway victory at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Tigers ran the ball on first down 26 times. They racked up 182 yards on those carries for an average of 7 yards.
Arkansas’ defense was constantly behind the chains. Auburn had more rushing yards on first downs than Arkansas had (120 yards) overall.
It was Auburn’s best offensive performance against an SEC team this season by a lot. The Tigers’ 517 total yards of offense bested their previous high — 424 yards last week against Vanderbilt — by 93 yards.
The Tigers put the game well out of hand early in the second half, and everyone in the stadium knew Auburn would be running the ball to chew clock. It still could not be stopped.
First-year Auburn coach Hugh Freeze said there is “no question” the Tigers’ offensive line had a dominant performance.
“Even when we started milking it halfway through the third quarter and everybody knew we were running it, I mean, our O-line was physical and our backs ran physical,” Freeze said. “That was really, really good to see.”
Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne set tone for a big day on the ground early. He rushed for 47 yards in the first quarter, including a 12-yard keeper for a touchdown 2:23 into the game.
“I thought [with] his ball handling [and] his patience, he was riding it long and making them have to make decisions,” Freeze said. ”He made really good decisions…. No question, that first drive he really kind of set the tone for us.”
Thorne had the Razorbacks guessing multiple times — especially during the opening drive — on read options. He flashed a good fake and deceptive speed, and made Arkansas pay.
“They have kind of changed a little bit lately, over the last two or three weeks, they’re going back to a little more fast-paced, hurry-up type offense,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. “[Run-pass option] — using him a lot versus a slowed-down version that they were doing earlier.
"He’s very valuable to them…. Their offensive line, they played lights out. They were exceptional, and that’s including the tight ends.”
Auburn running back Jarquez Hunter, who ran for 109 yards on 16 carries, continued his strong finish to the season. It was his third consecutive game rushing for over 100 yards.
Hunter had 144 rushing yards against Mississippi State and followed it up last week with a career-high 183 yards at Vanderbilt.
Freeze rattled off a list of things he was proud about, including another big day for his tailback.
“There’s some highlights of the game,” Freeze said. “[We had] 21 points in the first 8:32. I think this is a big one — 7.3 [yard] average on first down. That would allow us to go into tempo and do different things.
“First punt return [for a touchdown] since 2014. We were 7 of 12 on third down — which is huge — and they were 1 for 12. That tells a big story there. And another 100-yard game for Jarquez.”
Auburn’s 48 points were its most since 2016, when the Tigers dominated Arkansas 56-3 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“They played pretty good defense all year long,” Freeze said of the Razorbacks. “I think they were only giving up slightly over 300 [yards] a game, and so for us to come in here and do what we did, I think speaks volumes for the work our kids have put in.”
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