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October 11, 2008Arkansas found an offense it could stop, and a little running back No. 20 Auburn couldn't.
The 5-foot-7 Michael Smith rushed for 176 yards on 35 carries and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 63-yard run in the fourth quarter. The beleaguered Razorbacks defense then mounted two late defensive stops to preserve a 25-22 win over the Tigers on Saturday.
"We've been through a lot in the last couple games and we've gotten a lot better than where we started," said Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick, who ran for a touchdown and caught a scoring pass from receiver Joe Adams.
"We've grown as a team, become a lot closer. We knew if we could get it to a close game in the fourth quarter that we had a chance."
They hadn't had the opportunity to prove it. Arkansas had lost its last three games by a collective 139-31. The 19-point underdogs outgained Auburn 416-193 in the return of former Tigers offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino as Razorbacks coach.
The Razorbacks (3-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) forced Auburn's Kodi Burns into three straight incompletions from their 5 to halt one drive. Then Matt Harris made a diving interception with 29 seconds left on the Tigers' last chance.
The Tigers' second straight loss capped a tumultuous week. Coach Tommy Tuberville fired first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin three days before the game, then picked assistant Steve Ensminger as the playcaller for the rest of the season.
It has gotten bad enough Tuberville even found himself answering a question about his job security in the postgame news conference.
"It's been a tough week," he said. "I put our guys in a tough situation. I thought they fought hard, real hard. We didn't have a lot obviously on offense. Defensively, we couldn't get off the field.
"It was just a tough night and a tough week overall. I feel really (bad) for our players. We struggled in every area."
The Tigers (4-3, 2-3) stopped Smith on three consecutive runs and used all three timeouts to get one final chance. Punter Jeremy Davis then ran out the back of the end zone for a safety to avoid a potential block.
That left Auburn needing only a field goal to tie it.
Burns opened the Tigers' final drive with a run to near midfield, but Harris made his downfield interception on the next play to preserve the first big win of Petrino's return to college football from the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
"It's very rewarding," Petrino said. "It shows that the hard work we put in is paying off. It shows the ability of our players and their great attitude."
Burns, who had been alternating with Chris Todd, took a sputtering offense 76 yards late but came up short. He ran for two first downs and completed a 38-yarder to Tim Hawthorne on a third-and-8 play.
Burns then threw two straight incompletions on fade routes to the left corner of the end zone and heaved the ball over the head of running back Eric Smith in the end zone on fourth down.
The big blow had come from Michael Smith. He burst through the middle and shed two would-be tacklers downfield to make it 25-20 with 8:50 left. Dick checked off into the play at the line of scrimmage and gave it yet another time to his speedy back.
"I didn't even know that I had that many carries, but I think my body knows it," Smith said.
Dick was 17-of-32 for 222 yards but his two interceptions set up Auburn field goals. He also caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Adams on a reverse late in the third and had a 1-yard scoring run.
Both Auburn quarterbacks continued to struggle. Burns was 7-of-18 for 119 yards and was picked off twice. Todd was 3-for-10 for 18 yards and also was intercepted, but said the change in offensive bosses wasn't the problem.
"I don't think it had any negative effect on the offense at all," he said. "If anything, it kind of makes you come together when you face adversity like that."
Unlike Arkansas and Smith, the Auburn tailbacks never got involved in the game. Ben Tate had just eight carries for 32 yards, and Tuberville attributed that to the Razorbacks stacking the line of scrimmage.
"When you're about last in the league in throwing offense, you put them all up there and that's what they did," he said. "They forced us to throw the ball. We completed 10 passes all night. You've got to be able to take advantage of what they give you and we just weren't able to do it."
Tristan Davis supplied two of Auburn's biggest plays. He scored on a 97-yard kick return in the first quarter, the Tigers' first kick return for a score since Brad Lester's 93-yarder against Ball State in 2005.
Davis also forced a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half to set up Burns' 3-yard TD run for a 20-10 lead.
It was all Arkansas from there. Adrian Davis picked off Todd's pass and returned it 17 yards to the Auburn 23 on the final play of the third quarter to settle for a 44-yard field goal by Shay Haddock, who had an extra point blocked by Sen'Derrick Marks a few minutes earlier.
Auburn's Wes Byrum, who missed a PAT try in last week's 14-13 loss at Vanderbilt, then pushed a 33-yard field goal attempt wide right.