By Greg Ostendorf
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Establish the running game? Check. Play with tempo? Check. Force turnovers? Check. Play four quarters? Check. Respond after last week's game? Check.
Auburn checked all the boxes in a 52-20 win at Arkansas on Saturday night.
"It's a big win for our program," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "We had a tough loss last week. There was a lot of negative going around, but our guys bounced back. We practiced great on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and it carried over. I'm very proud of our guys."
The Tigers (6-2, 4-1), who outgained Arkansas, 629 to 334, looked hungry and eager to prove they still belonged in the conversation as one of the contenders in the SEC.
The offense was spearheaded by its rushing attack as Auburn finished with 345 yards on the ground. It was a heavy dose of Kerryon Johnson in the first half, but Kamryn Pettway, who had been battling an injury all season, took over in the second half. The redshirt junior led the Tigers with 90 yards and three touchdowns on just 11 carries.
"When [Pettway] is healthy, he's a load," Malzahn said. "It's a good one-two punch with Kerryon."
The quarterbacks also contributed to the ground game Saturday. Starter Jarrett Stidham rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown, and backup Malik Willis added 62 yards on just two carries as he led a scoring drive in the fourth quarter that finished with a four-yard pass from Willis to fellow freshman Devan Barrett. It was Barrett's first career touchdown at Auburn.
The play of the night, though, came midway through the third quarter following a turnover by the defense. It was the first play of the drive, and Auburn ran a reverse to Ryan Davis. But instead of running with it, the former high school quarterback chucked a deep pass on the run to a streaking Darius Slayton, who caught it and ran into the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown. Slayton led the Tigers with 146 yards receiving on four catches.
Not to be outdone, the Auburn defense wreaked havoc all night in the Arkansas backfield and put together another solid performance. The Tigers finished with eight tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles, and the first string didn't allow a touchdown.
Though six different Auburn players finished with at least half a sack, it was Jeff Holland who was the standout of the group. The junior had 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He became the first Auburn player with two forced fumbles in the same game since Corey Lemonier did it against Georgia in 2011, and he now leads the Tigers with eight sacks on the season.
Auburn, who played without a handful of key players Saturday night, will get a much-needed off week next week, allowing the team to rest up and get healthy before they travel to Texas A&M on Nov. 4 in what will be a significant game in the SEC West.
"We were a little beat up coming into this one, and [the off week] is going to give us a chance to heal up," Malzahn said. That's going to really be our priority next week. We played good football [Saturday], so we can build upon this. I think we're in a good spot to finish this thing strong."
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: