It’s difficult to categorize the kind of catharsis that Arkansas rightly earned Saturday in its four-overtime, 54-46 win over Auburn, but that’s what we’ll endeavor to do here.
Obviously, the fable starts with Brandon Allen’s emphatic murder of the albatross that’s been slung around his neck the past three years. Arkansas bolted out to a 14-0 lead and Allen was on point in the process, firing three accurate darts to Hunter Henry on an opening scoring drive, then finding Jeremy Sprinkle on a nifty tight end throwback for the second touchdown. Dominique Reed also got heavily involved in the offense, a development that couldn’t be more timely given the Hogs’ general dearth of perimeter speed with Keon Hatcher and Jared Cornelius still at least a week away from returning.
Thereafter, against all discernible logic, Dan Enos’ derring-do went astray for a while, Allen got pressured into a bad toss midway through the second quarter that ended up as the game’s only turnover, and Auburn went 96 yards off that mistake, then ground out another long drive to start the third quarter and tie the game.
Allen was unflappable, though. Twice after halftime he engineered go-ahead scoring drives, the first coming after a horrifying neck injury to Rawleigh Williams III sent the stout freshman tailback off the field on a cart. The Hogs were torched for a quick score in the first overtime period, but Allen coolly took the field and completed a third-and-8 strike to Henry for 10, then found Drew Morgan with a dart on a fourth-and-3 drag route to keep Arkansas alive. In the next overtime period, Allen picked up 11 yards on a receiver throwback from Damon Mitchell, and in the third extra frame he fired another short-range rocket to Jeremy Sprinkle for a resuscitating two-point conversion. It was that play that truly stirred the Hog crowd into believing that this wasn’t going to end up another late-game faltering, and Allen and Morgan validated that faith immediately with a 25-yard screen play that ended with Morgan sailing horizontally past the pylon.
The senior quarterback dropped in a nifty conversion toss to Kody Walker to set the final margin — the Hog defense held firm for a game-ending three-and-out — and was appropriately photographed during the postgame euphoria flashing visage that reflected vindication. His fourth quarter and overtime ledger read like something out of an inspirational sports novella: He hit 10 of his 14 passes, two for touchdowns, and completed the aforesaid two-point conversion passes. Arkansas’s official social media feeds posted the pic and those daunting numbers shortly after proceedings ended, and astutely, if even defiantly, summarized the effort with one word: “Clutch.”
The backdrop was fitting. Arkansas had inarguably its three best SEC outings last year in Fayetteville in rainy, cool conditions, losing narrowly to Alabama and then blasting LSU and Ole Miss on consecutive Saturdays in November. Whereas the projected downpour didn’t happen, it was still a grayish day in the Ozarks, and that seems to be the proper climate for Arkansas to employ its grinding style. Auburn’s defense, yet again, is flush with athletes but bereft of big-play swagger, and the Hogs exposed and exploited that to the tune of 213 rushing yards, outgaining the Tigers by 51 yards on three less carries in that category. Quarterback Sean White, meanwhile, suffered through the indignity of catastrophic drops by his receivers all day, sabotaging an otherwise fine effort in only his fourth start. Auburn is now reeling harder than the Hogs were, assigned to last place in a vicious division after losing six of its last seven in league play, while the Razorbacks (a modest 3-4, 2-2) have emerged from the West cellar for the first time under Bret Bielema’s tutelage. A three-year conference mark of 4-16 is garish at first glance, to be sure, but all four of those wins came after the polarizing coach dropped his first 13 SEC decisions. And now, in the aftermath of a bitter-pill defeat against Texas A&M, the Hogs have won a nip-and-tuck road game at Tennessee and vanquished a division foe in the longest college game all season. Those kinds of conquests are not plentiful for any team in this league; winning close is something of a lost art, and maybe it’s one that Arkansas has rediscovered.
The Hogs should be able to have a fine encore for homecoming. Tennessee-Martin is a fair Ohio Valley Conference squad, but the Skyhawks were abused by Ole Miss 76-3 in the season opener and don’t figure to have enough hands on deck to pose anything beyond a first-quarter threat to the Razorbacks. A win squares up the Hogs’ overall record at 4-4 en route to November, and the likelihood of Hatcher and Cornelius returning means that Arkansas can enter the last month with many of its once-dashed dreams being reborn anew.