Arkansas, Bielema hope to dampen Malzahn’s homecoming
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) No Southeastern Conference opponent during coach Bret Bielema’s three years at Arkansas has earned quite the same level of off-the-field attention as Auburn.
From back-and-forth barbs in the media to on-the-field injury antics and constant reminders about Tigers coach Gus Malzahn’s long history in Arkansas, the matchup of the two SEC West schools has been entertaining in recent years.
That is, except to fans of Arkansas – whose current coach is 0-2 against its former offensive coordinator.
The struggling Razorbacks (2-4, 1-2 SEC) will have a third chance under Bielema against Auburn when the two schools meet Saturday.
Malzahn led the Tigers (4-2, 1-2) to a win in his northwest Arkansas homecoming two years ago on the way to an SEC championship and national title game appearance. It was a particularly difficult loss in a 3-9 season full of them for Bielema, who said he hears from fans ”more about” Auburn than another other team – likely because of Malzahn’s ties to the state.
”It’s just one of those things that it’s important for the fans, and it’s important for us,” Bielema said. ”They played for a national championship two years ago, so to see where we’ve come in that amount of time is an intriguing thing for us and the program.”
Never one to express his emotions publicly, Malzahn has downplayed this week’s return to his home state and the possibility of any extra meaning to the game because of his history with Bielema and their differences when it comes to coaching offense. Bielema is a pro-style guy, while Malzahn prefers a wide-open spread attack.
The third-year Tigers coach is more preoccupied with recovering from a start to the season that saw Auburn fall from the top 10 to unranked following a narrow win over Jacksonville State and losses to LSU and Mississippi State.
Some things to watch as Bielema looks for his first win in three tries against Auburn and Malzahn:
MALZAHN’S HOMECOMING: While Malzahn insisted this week the game has no more meaning to him than any other, the road trip is unlike any other he’ll make this season. On Friday night, the former Arkansas walk-on will take part in a ceremony honoring the 2005 state championship team he coached at Springdale (Ark.) High School.
WHITE’S IMPACT: The Tigers have won their last two games, including a 30-27 at Kentucky in their last game, and they appear to have regained some of their offensive explosiveness with freshman quarterback Sean White under center the last three games. White has yet to throw a touchdown, but he also hasn’t thrown in interception in his last two games – a key factor as Auburn attempts to win its second straight SEC road game.
CONSISTENT BARBER: Running back Peyton Barber has been the most consistent element of Auburn’s offensive attack, and he faces a big challenge against the league’s No. 3 run defense. Barber has four 100-yard games and leads the FBS with 31 rushes resulting in a first down during the second half and overtime.
DEFENSIVE RAZORBACKS: Arkansas finished last season 10th nationally in total defense, and it’s continued to play well this season – holding three of its six opponents to their lowest scoring outputs of the season. After starting the season at outside linebacker, junior Brooks Ellis has moved back to the middle and leads the Razorbacks with 49 tackles.
COLLINS’ COMEBACK: Alex Collins had a streak of three straight 150-yard rushing games stopped when he was held to 26 yards on 12 carries in Arkansas’ loss at Alabama two weeks ago. The junior faces an Auburn defense this week that’s 100th in the country in rushing defense, allowing 197.7 yards per game.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor contributed to this report.