The Razorbacks blinked first, but it’s hard not to blink when someone jams a thumb in your eye.
That’s basically what Auburn’s defense did to the Razorbacks in the fourth quarter Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium by forcing three consecutive turnovers that led to touchdowns. That allowed the seventh-ranked Tigers to pull away for a 65-43 Southeastern Conference victory over 12th-ranked Arkansas.
“We struggled defensively for a while there against what is a very potent offense,” said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. “But the thing that stands out to me the most is that at the end of the game we were able to get three turnovers to change the game. What that says is that our football team is just resilient.”
The victory, achieved in front of a capacity crowd of 87,451 and a national television audience, keeps the Tigers unbeaten at 7-0, 4-0 in SEC play and should strengthen Auburn’s position when the first BCS rankings are released tonight.
In addition to the turnovers, the Tigers can thank their good fortune this season to another over the top performance by Cam Newton, who solidified his status as a Heisman Trophy contender by rushing for 128 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries. He completed 10 of 14 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown.
“I don’t have the opportunity to watch everybody in America but I can tell you this, No. 2 (Newton) is one spectacular football player,” Chizik said. “I’m not one to go out on a limb, but everybody in the world sees it. It’s not like I’m telling anybody anything new. He’s a competitor, he wants the ball, he’s humble, he keeps working and he gives us a chance to win every week….”
In addition, Newton and his Auburn teammates did not have a turnover while piling up 470 yards in offense.
No, the turnovers belonged to an Arkansas offense that finished the game with 566 yards in total offense, led by a backup quarterback who gave the Razorbacks everything he had.
Arkansas starter Ryan Mallet left the game with a concussion in the second quarter. Sophomore Tyler Wilson came into the game and completed 25 of 34 passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns.
“We matched them for three quarters and I was really proud of the way our players rallied around Tyler Wilson,” said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino. “They all played hard. I really thought we would find a way to win the game, but we came up short. Obviously, turnovers affected us in the fourth quarter, and it was the difference in the game.”
Auburn led 44-43 midway through the fourth quarter when the Tigers’ defense not only got a stop, but got points.
Safety Zac Etheridge scooped up an Arkansas fumble and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown.
“The ball just popped out right in front of me,” Etheridge said. “I just grabbed it and ran it in. There was no one around me. I have to give credit to Daren Bates and Mike Blanc. They tackled the guy. My hat goes off to the guys who smothered the ball and made the play.”
On the Razorbacks’ next two possessions, Wilson threw interceptions to Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes that set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Newton and a 38-yard run by freshman tailback Mike Dyer.
“Zac’s play got it started,” Bynes said. “We were just trying to hang in there, just trying to get a stop and he comes up with that play. It energized us, and the next thing you know, I’m getting a couple of picks.”
With 6:36 to play, Auburn led 65-43 and what had been a close game was officially a rout.
“I was on the sideline saying, ‘Oh my gosh, are we really scoring this many points?’’’ Newton said. “Have they scored that many points? We just had to be patient on offense, because we know we have a good defense and we knew they would take care of things over time. This team is resilient. This team doesn’t give up.”
Charles Bennett covers Auburn University sports for The Star.