Saturday, August 30, 2014


The team that led the nation in rushing last season just sent a frightening message to defensive coordinators everywhere.

Auburn can pass, too.

Jeremy Johnson passed for 243 yards in the first half, Duke Williams had nine catches for 154 yards in his Auburn debut and Nick Marshall directed an offense that still produced a 177-yard rusher in Cameron Artis-Payne as the Tigers overcame Arkansas and an 88-minute lightning delay in a 45-21 victory in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.

When the season-opener was done, Auburn had 595 yards, averaging 8.5 yards per snap. The Tigers ran for 302 yards and passed for 293 more.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Did somebody mention Auburn threw a shutout in the second half? Oh, yeah. Coach Gus Malzahn did.

"Our defense made the right adjustment. We started playing physical football," he said.

Auburn had to break away from a 21-21 halftime score to begin its defense of its Southeastern Conference championship in fine form. But when Auburn had taken control, had taken a 38-21 lead, the game was delayed by the lighting delay with almost 10 minutes remaining.

It didn't affect Auburn one bit.

Johnson was the starter, subbing in that role while Marshall was being punished for an off-season traffic stop and citation, and was sharp throwing down field, especially to Williams, the junior college transfer. Marshall didn't appear until the start of second half, and quickly led Auburn down the field and scored on an 18-yard run for a 28-21 lead.

It was a change-of-pace game, for sure. Auburn, the nation's top rushing team last year, relied on the pass in the first half with Johnson at quarterback. Then the Tigers found balance in the second half with tried-and-true Marshall and Artis-Payne gobbling up yards.

"I'm very proud of Jeremy Johnson," Malzahn said. "We've said before we believe he could start for most teams in college football, and I think y'all saw that."

And his principal receiver, the one Duke Williams?

"He's got play-making ability. The passing game was a good shot in the arm, too," Malzahn said. "He attacks the ball. We had a plan if they played us a certain way we'd attack them in the middle."

Williams went there, making seven of his catches for 138 yards in the first half from Johnson. He finished with the 12th best receiving day in Auburn history.

Malzahn said he wasn't sure how long he'd play Johnson, but, after Auburn scored on its first three possessions, he stuck with his sophomore.

"Really, we were just going to see how it went," Malzahn said. "He took care of things he needed to do.

"I thought he got off to an outstanding start. He can really throw it.

"We put Nick in there in the second half, and we thought he did some really good things."

Don't think quarterback controversy.

"At halftime we said, 'Let's put Nick back in.' Nothing against Jeremy at all," Malzahn said, who emphasized that Marshall is the starter.

And while Marshall was in there. The lightning came. And then the rain.

"I'm very proud that our fans hung in there with us. They helped us finish the game," Malzahn said.

The fans had sought cover. Auburn and Arkansas were ordered to their locker rooms.

"We just made sure they were off their feet, rest their body and mind," Malzahn said.

Auburn went over a few things it thought Arkansas might try, too.

"But a lot of it was just sitting around and waiting," Malzahn said. "I'm real proud of our guys. One of the big things for me was how they responded after the break."

Auburn's defense helped build the cushion from there when Jermaine Whitehead intercepted a duck of a pass and went 32 yards for the score and a 35-21 lead with 2:39 left in the third quarter.

Robenson Therezie, who overcame eligibility issue Friday night and was cleared to play only then, hit quarterback Brandon Allen, forcing the errant throw.

Auburn made it 17-0 in the second half, and 38-21 overall, when Daniel Carlson hit his first college field goal, a 45-yarder with 9:55 left.

Then it rained.

Then, after the delay, Corey Grant made it 24-0 in the second half on a 3-yard run with 3:15 remaining.

Johnson was spot on to start the game. He hit his first eight passes for an eye-popping 204 yards and two touchdowns, leading Auburn to three touchdown on its first three series. But the Tigers didn't score again in the half and Arkansas answered the Tigers touchdown for touchdown.

It was 21-21 at the break after Daniel Carlson's 42-yard field goal banged off the right upright on the half's final play.

It was an uneven start, though Johnson-to-Duke Williams was something to behold.

Johnson, playing the whole way in the first half, hit 12-of-16 passes for 243 and those two touchdown passes in the first two quarters. That was a change of strategy from last year's game in Fayetteville, where Auburn threw it nine times, total, the whole game.

Arkansas put up big numbers, too, finishing the first half with 267 yards and three scores.

The Tigers scored first, on a 49-yard pass from Johnson to Melvin Ray. Then Arkansas' Brandon Allen threw a 14-yard TD pass to Hunter Henry, and the race was on.

Artis-Payne scored on a 1-yard run for Auburn and Johnson threw an 18-yard TD pass to Williams for a 21-7 lead.

But Allen threw a 17-yard TD pass to AJ Allen and Jonathan Williams scored on a 6-yard run to tie the game at 21 with 4:28 left in the first half.

Auburn returns to action against San Jose State at 6 p.m. next Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

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