LITTLE ROCK — To Razorback fans, Gus Malzahn is:
(a) — the enemy
(b) — a native son come home
(c) — despised
(d) — adored
(e) — gimmicky
(f) — cutting edge
(g) — all of the above.
More than anything, the former Arkansas high school coach/former Razorback offensive coordinator is a distraction. This week, there have been more conversations about the wide range of feelings fans have for Malzahn than there have been about how Arkansas is going to slow the Auburn offense or who Bret Bielema might have been referring to when he talked about older players who have not performed as expected.
I don’t want to hear how Malzahn will run up the score given half a chance. He is the consummate professional with a once-beaten team on the cusp of the BCS top 10 and will keep his foot on the accelerator as long as there is any doubt about the outcome. Nothing personal. South Carolina scored 14 in the fourth quarter for 52-7; Alabama tallied 14 in the final 18 minutes for 52-0.
Arkansas fans would expect the same from Bielema if Arkansas had the decided edge in talent and Auburn had lost five in a row.
Enough about the perceived animosity between Bielema and Malzahn. The Razorbacks’ ability to slow Auburn’s offense is a much bigger deal than whether somebody at Auburn deleted an extra-point formation from the film sent to Arkansas.
The Razorbacks have surrendered 520-yards plus to three of four SEC opponents, part of the reason that Bielema has hinted that some younger players might play more today. "I"m not saying we’re just going with a full-scale youth movement, but … I think if we’re through eight games and you’re a player of senior status to junior status and you have not progressed the way we’d like … you can expect someone to get an opportunity," he said.
No word on names, but the best guesses on defense are Brooks Ellis at linebacker and D.J. Dean in the secondary. Arkansas is hurting at both spots and I’m all for looking at some new faces, even if the only advancements are in enthusiasm.
D’Arthur Cowan and Drew Morgan are wide receivers who might get a chance to help out quarterback Brandon Allen. Coming off a bye week, the gimpy in the offensive line, including center Travis Swanson, should be healthier and Arkansas has no chance unless the running game is productive.
Auburn will score, maybe a bunch, and Malzahn might unveil a trick play or two, but the Tigers’ hurry-up will start with the power play where the offensive tackle leaves the defensive end for the fullback and double teams the tackle. The running back make his cut off the offensive guard who pulls and leads through the hole.
There are no numbers available on how many times the Tigers have run that play or how many times they have employed a similar blocking scheme with the offensive tackle and authorized the quarterback to read the defensive end, but the Tigers have three of the top 14 rushers in the Southeastern Conference. Tre Mason is No. 5 with 753 yards, Cameron Artis-Payne is No. 9 with 510, and quarterback Nick Marshall is No. 14 with 461. Their average per carry ranges from Marshall’s 5.7 to Artis-Payne’s 7.1, meaningful numbers eight games into the season.
All week, Auburn hedged on the status of Marshall, but he has practiced, sharing time with freshman Jeremy Johnson. His toughness is no surprise to teammates who went wild when he initiated contact with a Florida Atlantic cornerback rather than stepping out of bounds.
Marshall’s passing stats include a pedestrian 57.6 percent completion rate, but quarterbacks seem to improve against Arkansas.
The day after the Alabama game, the pick for Hawgs Illustrated was Auburn 41, Arkansas 24. Nothing has occurred to alter that opinion.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.