By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn's open date couldn't have come at a better time, says Gus Malzahn, but now it's time to go back to work.
Arkansas will come calling at 5 p.m. Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Auburn coach says he expects everybody to be at practice Sunday after a week devoted to letting all the bumps-and-bruises of the first six games heal up. Auburn's open date came at exactly the halfway point of the regular season with the Tigers on a three-game winning streak.
"We're a pretty beat-up team the first six weeks," Malzahn said on XM radio. "We had some guys who hung in there and showed a lot of toughness, but this past week has been really good for us. Our No. 1 goal in the off week was to get our starters healed up and get them fresh for this last-half run.
"I think everybody will be back Sunday ready to practice and ready for the second half."
Malzahn praised his defense and said the offense has improved with quarterback Sean White.
"In college football, very few teams improve. We do have the potential to do that," Malzahn said. "That's going to be our focus. That's going to be our challenge.
"I really love the leadership on this team. They had a great offseason, a great spring. They've done everything our coaches have asked them to do. They've played their guts out. Earlier we were a work in progress. But we're improving each week. We played our best all-around game at Mississippi State."
Two of the top four yardage games in Auburn history have come this season, that against Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe. Then the Tigers scored 35 first-half points against Mississippi State as White and the offense began to hit its stride.
"Sean has gotten better each week," Malzahn said. "Once we settled in just to playing him you could see comfort zone each week improve. He's a tough guy. He's a very accurate guy. For us to be our best, our quarterback has to be somewhat of a runner. We've had more designed runs. He's done a very good job with the zone-read. His teammates have a lot of confidence in him. Our coaching staff does, too. He's leading our team. We think he's doing a great job. I think he'll continue."
Malzahn's midseason assessment went like this:
"We were still trying to figure out our identity early in the season, especially the offense. We had two returning starters up front, we had a new whole group of receivers and new running backs. We do know who we are after six games. We're starting to settle in. Our defense has played very well all year with our defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. They've really taken to him."
Malzahn said the defense has played with "great effort and they tackle well. We do have some veteran guys up front. Of course, that's where it starts, especially in our league. Our linebackers have really come on. They're enjoying playing defense."
Auburn's immediate challenge is Arkansas, which is coming in fresh off a 34-30 win over Ole Miss on Saturday night. Arkansas, at 5-2, and Auburn, at 4-2, have followed a similar path to get here. Their only losses are to Top 10 teams. Auburn lost to Clemson and Texas A&M. Arkansas lost to Alabama and A&M.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine