By DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Two teams that were understandably frustrated with underforming offenses just a couple of weeks ago are in a much better mindset for this Saturday’s 3 p.m. SEC game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Auburn (5-4, 2-4) has since ended a four-game losing streak with a pair of back-to-back wins over Mississippi State (28-13) and Vanderbilt (31-16) while Arkansas (2-6, 1-5) snapped a six-game winless skid with a 39-36 overtime road victory at Florida just a few days ago.
It appears the head coach Sam Pittman’s firing of Razorback offensive coordinator Dan Enos, the elevation of wide receivers coach Kenny Guiton to the interim role and a bye week clearly played into Arkansas’ revitalization.
For Auburn, it was what he called “a put up or shut up talk” between Tigers first year head coach Hugh Freeze and his quarterbacks.
“I thought we played with some confidence and swagger,” Freeze said of his team that had only scored a high of 21 points in its four consecutive losses to Texas A&M, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss.
Freeze decided to go with a single quarterback in Michigan State transfer Payton Thorne instead of also playing Robby Ashford and Holden Gernier.
“It was more ‘this is what we’re going to offensively,’ and I believe Payton’s skillsets are the most prepared for what we’re doing,” Freeze said. “It’s not a negative toward anybody else, I think when you talk about playing with tempo, setting our protections, throwing accuracy with footballs, and understanding coverages, I think he’s the farthest along in that.”
Just as with Arkansas, a change to a more up tempo attack proved beneficial for Auburn and Thorne, who had 7 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions coming into the contest.
Thorne responded by going 20 of 26 passing for 230 yards with three touchdowns, the first time an Auburn quarterback had done that since current Oregon signal caller did that against LSU in 2020.
Thorne welcomed the change to a quicker paced offense
from Freeze and offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery, who also got 183 yards rushing and two scores from tailback Jarquez Hunter.
“I thought it was very important,” Thorne said. “Coach emphasized it all week and I thought our guys did a good job of getting the ball back in to the ref and letting him spot it and rolling again.
“The o-line did a good job of picking up what they were bringing too. I thought it was a big part of what we were doing.”
The Arkansas offense certainly responded to Guiton, the former Ohio State quarterback who had worked under former Razorback offensive coordinator Kendal Briles in Fayetteville and Houston.
Arkansas had a paltry 200 yards total offense in a 7-3 home loss to Mississippi State in Enos’ last game, but put up 39 points and 481 yards total offense in Guiton’s debut.
That included quarterback KJ Jefferson’s 255 yards passing and 92 rushing and Rocket Sanders’ 103 yards rushing after rehabbing a knee injury.
“This is certainly not saying that we’re going to have the greatest plan and stop them, but I think it’s pretty clear they were frustrated with what they were doing and I think it’s a pretty stark difference,” Freeze said.
“…They’ve kind of gone back to playing like they did last year offensively, it appears. And they seem much more confident, so we’ve got our hands full with that.”
Freeze noted his staff will concentrate more on last year’s Razorback offense than this season’s one, which floundered dramatically under Enos.
“And the guy that’s calling it now, whose background is with the former offensive coordinator, I think it’s a pretty good bet that you throw a lot of the film out unless you’re just looking at personnel,” Freeze said. “Probably need to pull a few games from last year, in my opinion, and what they did at Florida.”
Auburn can become bowl eligible with a road win at Arkansas, a home one over New Mexico State (7-3) or a victory over visiting Alabama.
“We’re looking to become bowl eligible, that’s big in Year 1,” Freeze said.
Freeze went 1-2 in games at Arkansas when he was at Ole Miss, but got a win in Fayetteville last season when his Liberty team won 21-19 on Nov. 5.
“We had come off of a big win against BYU and I believe it was after an open week that we travelled to Arkansas,” Freeze said. “The first thing I was concerned about was my experience against Arkansas in November has not been pleasant. The 2 times that we went there when I was at Ole Miss, the weather was atrocious.
“I was just thankful that when we went at Liberty it was actually a nice day and it appears this Saturday is gonna be fairly nice.”
Freeze noted he played the under dog card before Liberty’s win our Arkansas.
“I tell our teams the truth, and I remember telling them, listen you’re the underdog, you shouldn’t win this game, but that’s what makes it fun, to go in and give it a shot,” Freeze said. “And you don’t have to be better 10 times, you just have to be better that one day.
“I can’t remember exactly what our theme was that week, but our kids played really hard that day and stopped the run pretty much. That’s something we need to do this week also.”
Photo courtesy of Auburn athletics