Analysis: Agonizing loss but obvious improvement for Auburn in thriller at Arkansas

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Maybe you noticed. It was third and one, in the second overtime, and there was Peyton Barber deep in the Auburn backfield an instant before the snap. He was eagerly bouncing on his toes, almost like someone preparing to go off a diving board.

Maybe you felt the same way.

Maybe you couldn’t sit or stand still, waiting eagerly to see what would happen next in this unpredictable thriller, with its pendulum swings of momentum and emotion.

Auburn's Peyton Barber rushes for four TDs in four-OT loss to Arkansas (Photo: Wade Rackley/Auburn Athletics)

Auburn's Peyton Barber rushes for four TDs in four-OT loss to Arkansas (Photo: Wade Rackley/Auburn Athletics)

Maybe you can’t figure how best to categorize the whole thing, this 54-46 Auburn overtime loss at Arkansas.

The most painful moral victory in a long time? The most entertaining loss in a long time? Sweetly agonizing? Totally deflating? Optimistic for the future, yet realistic that the loss was crushing for the long haul?

Maybe, too, you knew what was coming in overtime four, after Auburn gave up a 25-yard touchdown pass on Arkansas’ first play. A team that has struggled and underachieved as Auburn had in the first half of the season, you may have felt more trepidation than eagerness on the Tigers’ final possession, their opportunity to tie the game and usher in overtime five.

Sure enough, Ricardo Louis can’t hang on to a would-be touchdown on second down. Sean White misfires into the end zone on third. The Razorbacks’ Josh Liddell breaks up a pass on fourth down.

Game over.

“We’re going to keep fighting, keep improving,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We just didn’t make a play at the end of the game.”

It’s dawned on me that Auburn football team mirrors Malzahn’s wardrobe. His cap? Missing the top. His sweater? Missing sleeves. The football team? Missing something.

Mostly, again, missing tackles.

The Razorbacks averaged 5.6 yards per play. They converted 9-of-16 third-down chances and were 2-for-2 on fourth down.  They had it too easy in overtime.

WHNT News 19's new sports commentary segment, Upon Further Review, features Mark McCarter's unique wit and humor.

WHNT News 19's new sports commentary segment, Upon Further Review, features Mark McCarter's unique wit and humor.

The Auburn offense more than held up its end of the bargain. It never turned the ball over. Barber rushed for 120 yards and four touchdowns. Sean White went 19-for-32 and 254 yards. Kerryon Johnson, the terrific freshman from Madison Academy, rushed onto SportsCenter with a scintillating run punctuated by a hurdle over an Arkansas defender.

Auburn came back from down 14. It had a nice drive for a game-tying field goal to send the game to overtime. But the offense couldn’t clear the hurdle left by the defense’s inability to stop Arkansas.

This one leaves a bruise because of geography and jawing. This was a homecoming of sorts for Malzahn, who developed his reputation as an offensive wizard while coaching at Springdale (Ark.) High. And there was bitterness among Auburn Nation against Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who has made few strides in the working and playing well with others category since arriving in the SEC.

“I hate Auburn,” he said last summer. Much of the hatred is based on Malzahn’s hurry-up offense, which Bielema categorizes as dangerous.

But what has to hurt the most is this is the best Auburn has looked since the opening game. The improvement is obvious.

Yet the Tigers are now 1-3 in the Southeastern Conference and, where it really counts now, 4-3 overall. Can Auburn manage two wins to become bowl-eligible against a schedule of Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia, Idaho and Alabama?

“Our plan,” White said, “is to go 9-3.”

Farfetched.

Maybe there’s an upset looming along the way. Auburn’s gotta be on its toes and be ready just in case.

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