Darren McFadden and Arkansas may have the second-best rushing offense in the nation, but it hasn’t translated into any conference wins. Auburn, meanwhile, has shown significant improvement in its running game during a three-game winning streak.
McFadden and the Razorbacks try to break through and earn their first SEC victory when they host the 22nd-ranked Tigers on Saturday in a matchup of West division rivals.
Led by the tandem of McFadden and Felix Jones, Arkansas (3-2, 0-2) is averaging 338.4 yards per game on the ground. McFadden has rushed for at least 100 yards in every game this year, averaging 155.8 to rank third in the country.
McFadden suffered bruised ribs in last weekend’s 34-15 win over Tennessee-Chattanooga, but is expected to play against Auburn (4-2, 2-1). The reigning Doak Walker Award winner needs 32 yards to pass Ben Cowins and become the school’s all-time leading rusher.
The top running back duo in the nation hasn’t been enough for the Razorbacks to win in SEC play. Their defense has been shredded for an average of 442.5 yards and allowed a total of 83 points in losses to Alabama and Kentucky.
“We’re 0-2 in the SEC, so we need to get an SEC win under our belt,” McFadden said.
Arkansas will have to contend with an Auburn running game boosted by the return of Brad Lester, who is back after serving a six-game suspension due to academic reasons. Lester made his season debut last week, and carried 13 times for 77 yards in a 35-7 win over Vanderbilt.
The Tigers’ rushing offense wasn’t really suffering even without Lester. Leading rusher Ben Tate is averaging 90.7 yards in his last three games - 13 more than he averaged in the first three. Redshirt freshman Mario Fannin is gaining 5.4 yards per carry for the Tigers, who are thrilled to finally be able to use all three tailbacks.
“We’ve got the luxury of taking a guy out of the bullpen and putting him into the game,” said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, an Arkansas native. “They’re all going to get their turns and their at-bats. I like the situation.
“I just wish we’d had this the entire year. I think we’d be in a different situation altogether.”
Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox has taken advantage of the solid running game by completing 44 of 62 passes for 527 yards, two touchdowns and just one interception over his last three games. Cox, who was 14-for-17 for 165 yards last week, had six interceptions in the first three games of 2007.
“Our success rides so much on how well we run the ball,” Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges said. “We’ve been able to run the ball the last three weeks and that’s made all the difference in the world in regards to passing the ball. It’s taken a lot of pressure off our quarterback.”
The other side of the ball is a bigger concern for Auburn. Defensive end Quentin Groves (dislocated toes) and linebacker Tray Blackmon (ankle) both have been limited in practice. Safety Aairon Savage and center Jason Bosley (knee injuries) and linebacker Merrill Johnson (shoulder) are all listed as doubtful.
For the Razorbacks, McFadden and Jones had big roles in a 27-10 win at Auburn last season that ended the Tigers’ 5-0 start. McFadden ran for 145 yards - including a 63-yard touchdown - while Jones carried 13 times for 104 yards and a score - one of eight times that the two backs have both topped the century mark.
Cox threw for 153 yards in the loss for Auburn, which also managed only 60 yards on the ground and had its three-game winning streak in the series snapped.
The Tigers are a different team a year later, having used 26 freshmen - including 15 true freshmen. They’re hoping it will translate into a different result.
“We are making strides,” Tuberville said. “This team is getting confidence, and we are starting to believe in each other and starting to play as a team. We are 4-2 and we’d love to be a little bit better than that. But under the circumstances, I really feel good about our team and where we are after six games.”