FAYETTEVILLE — Looking down at the Arkansas sideline as the teams changed ends of the field for the fourth quarter, I had to double-check the score.
Near midfield, almost all the Razorback players were in a massive huddle, jumping around in anticipation of the final 15 minutes as if Arkansas was in front 28-10 instead of the other way around against Auburn. The conclusion is that there is something exhilarating about competition, about the game being in doubt after three quarters.
Perspective is provided by 52-0 and 52-7 during the two previous contests, and it is a credit to players or coaches or both that they hung in despite trailing by 25 barely midway through the third quarter.
Korliss Marshall’s 87-yard kickoff return provided an adrenalin rush for the Razorbacks’ rally and halted work on the lead to the column.
Losing 35-17 is not to be construed as a watershed moment for Bret Bielema’s program, but Razorback fans who stuck around to the finish witnessed a lot of try by Arkansas. The same cannot be said about the last time Arkansas played in Fayetteville. If one team has an advantage in talent, competing hard for 60 minutes is the most that can be expected.
At 28-17, Auburn might have been vulnerable if quarterback Nick Marshall had failed to recover his own fumble at the end of a 28-yard run. Instead, the Tigers overcame a delay-of-game penalty on third down with a 12-yard draw play that appeared to be designed for Tre Mason to escape out the back side of the formation.
He got into the end zone for his fourth touchdown, the first that ended with him on the ground.
His first three touchdown runs are among the five running plays that help illustrate the difference a team that has lost once and a team that has dropped six in a row. Part of the first 79 snaps, each of the plays began inside the opponent’s 10.
From the 9, 4, and 5, Mason scored standing up, an unsettling reminder that Arkansas is not very good at stopping a team hellbent on running the ball. Arkansas’ two contributions to this equation occurred with the Razorbacks trailing 14-3 late in the first half.
On third down from the Auburn 1, Jonathan Williams failed to get airborne. On fourth down, with eight offensive linemen in the game, Williams lost a yard trying to run inside.
Arkansas figured to need some help to beat Auburn, which should crack the top 10 of the Bowl Championship Series standings next week. Instead, the Razorbacks suffered three turnovers and Auburn zero. The first two occurred during the seven plays while AJ Derby was filling in for Brandon Allen, who was carted off the field in the first quarter, but returned late in the period.
The Razorbacks also botched an onside kick, a questionable tactic after a team’s first score in more than 134 minutes of action. On top of that, Zach Hocker kicked off out of bounds to start the second half. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said Arkansas had a numbers advantage on the onside attempt, but, in retrospect, he wished he had stayed with the standard kick.
As a result of those two kicks, Auburn covered 38 yards for its second touchdown and 65 yards for its third.
Add to that offensive pass interference penalties that wiped out a couple of Allen completions, Javontee Herndon’s inability to hold onto one of Allen’s best throws of the year in the end zone in the first quarter, Allen missing Hunter Henry running free down the hashmark, Henry dropping a pass in the flat, Tevin Mitchel failing to defend a deep throw to Sammie Coates, and there was no way Arkansas could prevail.
The postgame handshake between Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn lasted about five seconds and it appeared that the transplanted Arkie did the talking. From the press box, their pregame meeting had the warmth of an obligatory Obama-Romney moment.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.