Auburn knocked off No. 17 Arkansas 38-23 Saturday at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, keeping its SEC West title hopes alive with a road victory to improve to 5-2 on the season and 2-1 in the conference. An impressive performance by the Tigers, and a wild game, particularly in the second half extended the Razorbacks' losing streak to three games after their 4-0 start.
Arkansas (4-3, 1-3) opened the second half with a touchdown drive to take a 17-14 lead (its first of the day), and then after forcing an Auburn punt, it looked like the Razorbacks were poised to take control of the game. But they didn't. Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson was sacked and fumbled in the Arkansas end zone where Auburn's Marcus Harris fell on the ball for a score. Arkansas responded with a long drive into Auburn territory, but the Tigers defense came up big again, stuffing Jefferson on a fourth-and-3 run to turn the ball over on downs.
On the next play Tigers quarterback Bo Nix hit Demetris Robinson for a 71-yard touchdown that sucked the life out of the home crowd. Nix would deliver the fatal blow later, taking off for a 23-yard touchdown on a QB draw to give the Tigers a 15-point lead in the final minutes.
Nix completed 21 of 26 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 42 yards. Jefferson threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Razorbacks with 66 yards rushing.
1. This was the best I've ever seen Bo Nix look
While he's had better games statistically -- specifically the season-opener against Akron -- I've never seen Bo Nix look this good against a team of this caliber. The biggest difference in Nix that I'd noticed this season wasn't so much that he'd improved overall as a passer and was putting up big numbers; it was that he was avoiding devastating mistakes. Considering how often he'd made them in the past, that was a significant step forward in his growth.
Saturday he looked fantastic, even with one mistake. Nix tore the Arkansas secondary apart with at least three of his five incompletions were due to drops by his receivers. Of course, one was also an interception that came in the classic Nix style of deciding where he was going with the ball before the snap and throwing it despite the coverage.
Still, other than that one play, Nix made play after play when his team needed him to. I've criticized him plenty over the last few years, but if the Nix that played Saturday shows up for the Tigers every week, this becomes a very dangerous football team.
2. Auburn is flying under the radar but is a threat in the SEC
And, even if the Bo Nix that showed up Saturday doesn't show up every week, this is still an Auburn team poised to make noise. This was the second game of a tough stretch for the Tigers and a much-needed win after last week's loss to Georgia. The Tigers have games coming up against Ole Miss and Texas A&M. But Alabama's loss to A&M last week opened the SEC West in a way most weren't expecting. Now the Tigers are in an excellent position to take advantage, as they still have games left against all their primary competitors within the division.
Auburn has a win over a ranked Arkansas team and two losses against teams still in the top 10 nationally. I don't think anybody will pick the Tigers to win the West and get to Atlanta, but at the very least, this team will have a say in who gets there.
3. Derek Mason has this defense playing well
It's not always pretty on a down-to-down basis, but Auburn has a defense that seems to come up with big plays when needed consistently. There was the Derick Hall sack that resulted in the fumble recovery touchdown, and Smoke Monday made a couple of massive tackles on third down to get his defense off the field. There were also three fourth-down stops that tilted the impact of this game.
Tigers defensive coordinator Derek Mason's time at Vanderbilt might not have worked out as well as he'd have liked, but he's got this Auburn defense playing very well.
4. Arkansas had so many opportunities to win this game
Looking at the box score, you almost wonder how the Razorbacks lost this game. The Hogs ran 28 more plays on offense than Auburn did and were 10-for-19 on third down. In the game, they had 16 "big plays" (runs of at least 10 yards and passes of at least 15) that covered 251 yards, and 47% of their offensive snaps were in Auburn territory. And yet, they lost by 15 points. Nine of their 12 offensive possessions ended in Auburn territory, yet the Hogs managed only three touchdowns and a field goal.
As mentioned earlier, the Arkansas offense was stopped on fourth down three times, all in Auburn territory. It's one thing to move the ball effectively, but you have to finish drives. Arkansas was able to do the former, but there wasn't nearly enough of the latter.
5. Arkansas WR Treylon Burks is legit
I don't know if he'll win the Biletnikoff Award or be considered a Heisman contender on an Arkansas team that now has three losses, but WR Treylon Burks is a matchup nightmare. Arkansas lines him up on the outside and in the slot, and it really doesn't matter where you put him because there aren't many players in the country capable of covering him.
Burks finished with nine receptions for 109 yards and two touchdowns, but it wasn't enough for the Razorbacks to avoid the upset loss at home.