Jim Harris: Razorback Stadium Scoreboard Should Be Clicking Saturday


Razorback Stadium

As far as college football entertainment goes, the Arkansas fans who fill Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday should be pleased. They want to be entertained, right? That’s what the callers on sports talk radio seem to indicate these days in all their anger and disappointment with this season. Forget three yards and the cloud of little rubber pellets flying in the air off the fake turf; fans want to see lots up back and forth action apparently.

They want to see offense like they saw in the mist and drizzle of of late September Saturday night when Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel outscored the Hogs 45-33.

And they should get the same type of game this Saturday night with the 11th-ranked Auburn Tigers coming to town. Gus Malzahn has the Tigers’ offensive players playing the way they were recruited to play in his hurry-up, no-huddle. And since the passing is limited in both arms and receivers, Malzahn is doing it on the ground with the Southeastern Conference’s leading rushing attack.

Who saw that coming?

Who back in 2006, during Mal-a-zahn’s one season as offensive coordinator for Houston Nutt, realized that Gus wasn’t all about winging the football around the field and actually did understand the running game, that he didn’t have to have it pointed out to him that he had to get Darren McFadden and Felix Jones involved?

We’ll never forget one of the two finer hours of that 10-win season, a 27-10 victory over No. 2 Auburn on the road, when Mitch Mustain only had to throw 10 times and connect on 7, while Darren McFadden introduced himself to the nation with 160-plus yards rushing. Out of that Malzahn offense, the Razorbacks spread Auburn’s defense vertically with the threat of Mustain’s arm and plundered the Tigers, just knocked them backwards onto their butts, on the way to a historic win for Nutt’s program.

In hindsight, which is always 20-20, it becomes even more amazing as Malzahn sets the world afire in Auburn, that the powers-that-be sided with an eventual failed head coach in all that mess that surrounded the 2006 team and several of the players Malzahn had coached in high school.

All Gus says, or has ever said, is that he thanks Nutt for giving him the opportunity to get into college coaching. The rest has been impressive offensive history, whether at Tulsa, or being part of Auburn’s 2010 national championship, or now in his triumphant return to the Plains after one great season as a college head coach in Jonesboro.

Someday, the fictional story will be that Malzahn’s rise at Auburn was all a carefully orchestrated plot by boosters to unseat Chizik and get the offensive mind in the head coach’s chair. Malzahn knew it was time to depart Auburn late in the 2011 season, and Chizik made the unwise decision to bring in a pro-style power offense with talent recruited to run a more wide-open game.

The truth is, Malzahn wasn’t even Auburn’s first choice when Chizik was sacked after last year’s ignominity of 3-9 and 0-8 in the league. Kirby Smart, the Alabama defensive coordinator, was the guy, but he balked. Yes, Malzahn had made a lot of promises to the Arkansas State people who rounded up more money for a head coach than ever before — fourfold the amount paid Hugh Freeze the year before — that he planned to stay in Jonesboro a while, but Auburn head coaching jobs don’t come around that often.

Er, well, of late, maybe that job does come open more often than most do at successful programs. Gus knows he’d better win big down there or it’s see you later. He’s already set a bar pretty high right off the bat when no one was expected much. Tommy Tuberville was undefeated in 2004 but was sacked in 2008. Terry Bowden went unbeaten in 1993 but was out the door halfway through the 1998 season. Even Chizik only got two more years after winning the program’s second national championship.

Now, though, Malzahn already has Tiger fans excited about the Iron Bowl matchup with Alabama again (Chizik lost his last one 49-0 and Tide coach Nick Saban played nice too). Malzahn, whether completely on his own volition or with the urging of those wildly crazy-rich Auburn boosters, encouraged the great recruiter Rodney Garner to leave Georgia after 15 years to return to his alma mater. He enticed the fantastic recruiter Dameyune Craig to leave the powerful program he’d help build at Florida State and return to his alma mater as well. Ellis Johnson may have been quickly out of a job after his disastrous stint as head coach at Southern Miss for one season, but Malzahn also knew him as a tremendous defensive coordinator, the one that gave him the most trouble in scheming against.

With his own knowledge and that of Craig’s and Garner’s and other former Tigers, Malzahn began restoring the Auburn creed within the football program. There was too much talent on this squad, with the exception of quarterback, perhaps, to up and quit on the previous coach and lose every SEC game last year. Malzahn went and found a junior college quarterback, Nick Marshall, who could run and sometimes pass, but at best possessed a never-give-up attitude. Recruiting landed a hot-shot freshman quarterback for the future. Malzahn could even move onetime Gatorade Arkansas Player of the Year Kiehl Frazier to defense, though Frazier has returned to quarterback recently for depth. He wasn’t cut out for the pro-I and it destroyed his confidence last year, but there is still time for him to become the college player Malzahn expected.

Still, this current versions of the Tigers had to be built week by week. Auburn was more lucky than good against Washington State. Marshall drove the team to victory late against Mississippi State. They competed against LSU when a blowout in Death Valley seemed certain. Then, against all odds, Marshall and Auburn went in to College Station and upended Johnny Football and the Aggies.

Johnson is doing with Auburn’s defense what Arkansas’ staff is trying to accomplish with its defense: bending, trying not to break. Johnson has better athletes. They make more plays. They also play themselves so aggressively out of position. Sometimes its more break than bend. Sometimes there are zone blitzes, the kind that have troubled Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen. Sometimes there are line stunts, the kind that hamper the blockers for Arkansas’ one strength: its running backs, Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams.

Arkansas has a chance to move the ball between the 20s and keep the defense off the field for extended periods, which didn’t happened in the past two games, when the Hogs were outscored 104-7. Allen and the Razorbacks have to be very precise, though, to score touchdowns inside the red zone.

Meanwhile, we have no idea what a week off has brought to the Hogs program. Did they regain some of that mental edge they possessed early on, when they overwhelmed Louisiana-Lafayette in the season opener? Did the defensive coaches decide to put younger players who will play and tackle harder in the back seven?

All this unfolds Saturday: Malzahn returns “home,” where he’s 0-3 as a college coordinator and 0-0 as a college head coach. Arkansas tries to regain some swagger against a more manageable schedule the next three weeks than what it faced during October. Some younger players could make their debut and help that turnaround. Some seniors may be rededicated to end their careers on a positive note, on Senior Day.

And, with all that, it should be an exciting 60 minutes.

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