By DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Former Arkansas State, Ole Miss and Liberty head football coach and current Auburn program boss Hugh Freeze has spent a good amount of time in the state of Arkansas.
Freeze is 2-2 in games played in Fayetteville, including guiding Liberty to a 21-19 win over Arkansas last November.
But ironically if he wants to get a second win in as many years and a third win overall at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Freeze’s offense will have to solve an “Auburn man.”
Arkansas (3-6, 1-5) will host Auburn (5-4, 2-4) Saturday at 3 p.m. with the Tigers matching wits with Razorback co-defensive coordinator Travis Williams, a former Auburn star linebacker and assistant coach.
Williams came to the Razorbacks after spending time as the DC for Central Florida’s Gus Malzahn, the former Arkansas high school coach and Auburn and Arkansas State head coach.
“I think Travis, you know obviously my friendship with Gus (so) I know of Travis and his reputation, Freeze said. “I think he’s an outstanding recruiter, number one. Then you put on the tape and see how hard his kids are playing defensively and that’s a great testament to his leadership.”
That proved to the case on offense as well last week in Arkansas’ 39-36 victory at Florida last Saturday that ended a six-game losing skid.
The win came on the heels of Razorback head coach Sam Pittman firing offensive coordinator Dan Enos after a 7-3 home loss to Mississippi State and a bye week.
Pittman elevated wide receivers coach Kenny Guiton to call the plays and Arkansas’ previously punchless offense responded with nearly 500 total yards.
“Man, you’ve got to give Sam Pittman a lot of credit,” Freeze said. “His kids have lost, I think, five games by one score or less and boy they continue to play hard for them. That jumps off the tape. I think they’re playing really good defense right now.”
Freeze knows Arkansas is trying to make an improbable comeback by winning its final four regular season games to become eligible.
“Yeah, I think them having very little margin for error and them playing well last week makes it a lot more difficult on us,” Freeze said. “They’ve got a very mature senior quarterback that I think starts with his leadership. I think a lot of (Arkansas quarterback) KJ (Jefferson) in that.
“…I think Sam has done a really nice job of holding his team together. I know what it’s like to go through the stretch of games he went through and man he’s right there in every game. I think they will be extremely motivated to keep their hopes of postseason alive and that adds to the difficulty of our challenge.”
Guiton’s offense used more tempo and got Jefferson rolling out instead of staying in the pocket.
Jefferson also had Arkansas tailback Rocket Sanders back healthy and he rushed 18 times for 103 yards.
“Last week with the change at offensive coordinator they went back to things that made KJ feel a lot more comfortable it appears,” Freeze said. “So I think it’s one of our taller tasks of the season.”
Auburn comes into the game after consecutive wins over Mississippi State (28-13) and Vanderbilt (31-16), who are in last place in their respective divisions.
Against Vanderbilt, Freeze turned the offense over fully to Payton Thorne, who had been sharing time with two other quarterbacks.
“I think he’s earned the right to function the entirety of what we’re trying to do a little better than the others,” Freeze said. “As long as he continues to perform like that in our base offense, I think it’s his.
“…As far as the base offense, I think Peyton has the best understanding and the most accuracy and the reads and protections as the others.”
Freeze is a fan of the atmosphere at Reynolds Razorback Stadium and good weather.
“Great atmosphere,” Freeze said. “ Obviously I still have a lot of friends in Arkansas from my time there at Arkansas State. I’ve always thought a lot of the people of the state.
“And then gameday there is always a challenge, for sure. My experience there when I was at Ole Miss was not good, but we had some awful weather both times.
“Last year at Liberty we caught a beautiful day, which was helpful for sure. Their kids seemed to handle the elements there a little better than ours did back in the day.
“It’s just a good place to play, fun place to play. It’s challenging, but that’s why you really sign up for this deal, is to experience places like Arkansas.”
Photo courtesy of Auburn athletics