AUBURN, Ala. — The noise coming from Arkansas players and coaches could be heard loud and clear in the bowels of Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The team bell, which signals important accomplishment, rang over and over again as the team filed into the locker room. Once there, shouts of joy seeped through the brick walls. The clapping and cheering continued for several minutes as smiling players trickled one-by-one into the postgame interview room.
Arkansas didn’t beat a ranked team during its 24-7 win against Auburn in front of an announced crowd of 85,813. It didn’t win a championship, which was one of the team’s preseason goals as it began 2012. But those details didn’t matter Saturday.
The Razorbacks’ locker room celebration was about another significant accomplishment: Ending one of the most frustrating stretches in school history.
“We were pretty rowdy,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said about the locker room scene. “It’s that buildup of frustration. I guess everything that’s happened was released in there (Saturday), which was good. Now we can move forward.”
Arkansas’ early-season free fall came to a much-needed and very welcomed end against Auburn. A maligned defense, which staked its claim among the nation’s worst units in September, led the way with eight sacks and five turnovers. An offense which continued to struggle in the red zone come through when needed Saturday, too, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to close out the win.
It helped Arkansas end its longest losing streak since 2004 and avoid its worst start since 1958. It kept the Razorbacks out of the SEC West’s cellar, pushing Auburn into the dubious spot. It also gave Arkansas some hope after a 1-4 start.
“You want these guys to have success,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “You know how hard they work. If you would have seen us practice this last week, you would’ve said, ‘This is not a 1-4 football team.’ They went out and worked hard. And they had energy. So it’s a credit to them and the coaches for keeping them there.”
It came after Arkansas had been outscored 110-10 during its two SEC losses to Alabama and Texas A&M. The turnaround began with defense.
The Razorbacks harassed quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley throughout the game. Defensive end Trey Flowers, a Huntsville, Ala., native, led the way with a career-high 3 ½ sacks in his home state.
“We didn’t want him back there feeling comfortable with himself,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. “But it wasn’t always blitzing.
“It was our four-man pressure. Our D-line played great (Saturday). They put a fire behind their ears and they got after it, which was good to see.”
Arkansas also forced five turnovers in the win. It began with a fumble recovery in the second quarter, which was Arkansas’ first forced turnover in more than 14 quarters. The Razorbacks grabbed four more before the day had ended, wrapping up the win with safety Ross Rasner’s interception in the endzone.
Arkansas bested both its sack total (7 in five games) and turnover total (2 in five games) during its game-winning performance at Auburn.
“We have a lot of guys that have been here for a long time,” Rasner said. “We knew how we can play. I think (Saturday) was our first real coming out party of how we feel about ourselves as a defense. I think we came out to play in the way that we always thought we could. But we just hadn’t executed things like we did (Saturday).”
Auburn, which had two weeks to fix an offense that ranked among the nation’s worst after the first month of the season, continued to struggle offensively. The Tigers finished with 321 yards and could only find the end zone once.
It has left the Tigers struggling with their first 1-4 start since 1998.
“I certainly didn’t expect to play like we played,” Chizik said. “But the reality of it is, (Saturday), we did all of the things you can’t do to win and we know that.”
Arkansas had some issues of its own offensively, which kept the game tight until the fourth quarter. Missed redzone opportunities in the first half and a third quarter in which Arkansas managed just 20 yards on nine plays were the biggest problems.
Auburn took advantage of the struggles, finally finding something positive on offense. Moseley capped Auburn’s only scoring drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to receiver Emory Blake to close the deficit to 10-7 late in the quarter.
But Arkansas, which lost early leads in each of its past two games, didn’t fold.
“I told them at the beginning of the week we’re going to have 100 percent unwavering belief,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “So if something bad happens, just keep believing and keep fighting. That happened.”
Arkansas’ offense answered with a five-play, 75-yard drive. The big blow came on a trick play dialed up by offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. The coach, who moved from the sideline to the box for Saturday’s game, called a reverse pass that worked.
Wilson handed the ball to Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson, who then flipped it to Brandon Mitchell. The quarterback-turned receiver threw a perfect strike to receiver Javontee Herndon in the back of the endzone for a 26-yard touchdown.
“He made a great throw,” Petrino said. “It was perfect, right on the money. The guy was coming at him as he threw it. It was a big-time play and I’m glad he made it.”
Wilson finished completing 20 of 27 passes for 216 yards. Johnson rushed for a game-high 76 yards on 17 carries, getting into the end zone twice. Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton also added 72 receiving yards on five catches in the win.
Fittingly, the defense made sure the touchdown held up by forcing turnovers on Auburn’s final three possessions. Auburn’s last gasp ended when Rasner outjumped an Auburn receiver in the endzone to pull in an interception and cap the victory.
Smith, with police officers flanking him on both sides, ran off the field clapping his hands after the postgame handshake with Chizik. Assistant coaches stuck around a little longer, congratulating players as they left the field. Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was there, too, offering handshakes and hugs to players and coaches.
The Razorbacks then went to the corner of the end zone to sing the school’s fight song with the band, cheerleaders and other fans in attendance Saturday night.
It wasn’t a championship celebration. Arkansas is just 2-4 at the midway point of the season after all. But the Razorbacks now believe it can be the start of a strong finish.
“We can salvage some stuff,” Wilson said. “We can make it a season that, maybe not everybody wanted preseason, but definitely respectable.”