Fayetteville, Ark. (EETV) – Auburn traveled westward this week for their penultimate SEC game of the year against the Arkansas Razorbacks. Despite coming off a big win in the Swamp over Florida last week, Arkansas was no match for Auburn, who pummeled the Razorbacks in an emphatic 48-10 victory.
Right from the onset, it was clear that Auburn meant business. The Tigers marched 75 yards down the field on their first possession, capping the drive with a touchdown after just under two and a half minutes. The spark of the drive was a 45-yard strike through the air from Payton Thorne to WR Caleb Burton which took the Auburn offense into the red zone. The drive was then capped by a 12-yard rushing touchdown from Thorne to make it 7-0 Auburn early.
The stifling Auburn defense then forced a three and out on the first drive of the game for the Arkansas offense, resulting in an Arkansas punt. Tigers return man Keionte Scott fielded the punt at his own 26 yard line, and then returned it 74 yards for another Auburn touchdown to increase the Tigers’ lead to 14.
Scott’s return touchdown was the first punt return touchdown for Auburn since Quan Bray did it vs Louisiana Tech in 2014, and the first in an SEC game since Chris Davis did it against Tennessee in 2013. And this one, it seems, can be attributed to Coach Hugh Freeze.
“I told him [Keionte Scott] this morning at the hotel,” said Freeze, “I swear to you that I said ‘You are going to either return a punt for a score or return one that gets us in field goal range. And so I’m glad that came true.”
The Auburn defense did it again with a second three-and-out on the ensuing Arkansas possession, causing another punt. Though this one wasn't returned, it wouldn’t be a problem for the Auburn offense. The Tigers went 56 yards in just over two and a half minutes, capping the drive off with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Payton Thorne to Rivaldo Fairweather to extend the Auburn lead to 21.
Arkansas would be forced to punt yet again on their next drive after another three-and-out by the Auburn defense. However, the Auburn offense wouldn’t be as successful, as Payton Thorne threw an interception to Arkansas defensive back Dwight McGlothern, setting the Razorbacks up at the Auburn 22. However, the Tigers’ defense would hold strong again, forcing an Arkansas field goal from Cam Little to make the score 21-3.
The first half of the second quarter was alternating punts between the two offenses, with neither able to get anything going. Finally, with just over a minute left in the quarter, Alex McPherson made a 39-yard field goal to increase the Auburn lead to 24-3.
Arkansas got the ball back and tried to mount a quick scoring drive, but quarterback KJ Jefferson was sacked by Auburn defensive lineman Jalen McLeod, who stripped the ball from Jefferson on the sack. The turnover set Auburn up with excellent field position, and Alex McPherson was able to add another field goal, this one from 31 yards out, to give Auburn a 27-3 lead as the first half ended.
Arkansas received the ball to start the second half, and the Auburn defense picked up right where they left off, forcing another three-and-out. The Auburn offense came out of the half firing as well, as they drove 67 yards in just under four minutes. The drive was completed by a 14-yard receiving touchdown by Ja’Varrius Johnson, which put the Tigers up 34-3 with just under ten minutes left in the third quarter.
Arkansas’s next drive actually got off to a good start, with KJ Jefferson finding Isaiah Sategna for a 35-yard completion. However, the Auburn defense wasn’t going to let that fly in this one, strip-sacking KJ Jefferson on the next play courtesy of Elijah McAllister. The fumble was recovered by the Tigers’ Colby Wooden, who returned it 74 yards to the Arkansas 11 yard line.
The next play, Payton Thorne found Rivaldo Fairweather in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown, making the score 41-3 Auburn. Arkansas got the ball again, and again went three-and-out, punting the ball back to Auburn. Auburn then began to run the clock, driving 65 yards down the field using only run plays on a touchdown drive capped by a 7-yard touchdown rush by Brian Battie. This put the Tigers up 48-3 with just 14 seconds left in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was mostly each team trying to run out the clock. However, the Auburn defense did allow their first touchdown of the game, an 11-yard receiving touchdown from Arkansas wideout Isaac TeSlaa less than 30 seconds into the quarter, which was set up by a 60-yard rush from backup quarterback Jacolby Criswell. From that point, neither team would score again as the remaining 14 and a half minutes of clock bled out.
Jalen McLeod was a force for the Tigers in this one on a defense that was locking down the Razorbacks time after time. McLeod recorded nine tackles, six solo tackles, three sacks, and a forced fumble on the evening. The play of not only McLeod, but the entire defense had Coach Freeze encouraged after this one.
“Yeah, I thought they just made KJ [Jefferson] feel really uncomfortable from the start of the game,” said Freeze. “And we really crushed the pocket, and, you know, he’s gonna break a few out of there. He’s done it against everybody, but I thought our defense played really, really, really good.”
As for the offense, the Tigers were dominant on the ground, rushing for 354 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jarquez Hunter led the way, going over 100 yards for the third game in a row and continuing his stellar second half of the season.
Payton Thorne also had an excellent day, passing for 163 yards, three touchdowns, and just one interception. Thorne also added 88 rushing yards on 12 carries, as well as a rushing touchdown.
This win also marks Auburn’s sixth win of the season, meaning the Tigers are bowl eligible in Coach Freeze’s first season on the plains.
“I think it’s huge,” said Freeze, “You know, it’s something that truthfully, this is a bit selfish to say probably, with the staff and I and everywhere we’ve been, we’ve been able to do that in year one, and I’d like to keep that streak alive and we have, and, more importantly for our seniors, for them to get to experience going out you know, experiencing the bowl representing Auburn.”
Auburn now sits at 6-4 on the season, with just two games left on the schedule. Next week the Tigers will welcome New Mexico St into Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers will look to use that game to continue to build momentum before the Iron Bowl the week after, when the Alabama Crimson Tide come to town for a massive rivalry game on the plains.