FAYETTEVILLE — Gus Malzahn did his best to hide any emotion about his return home, referring to it as “a business trip.”
Tre Mason made sure No. 8 Auburn handled its business for its first-year coach on Saturday, rushing for four touchdowns as the Tigers (8-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) rolled to a 35-17 win over Arkansas.
For the Tigers, the win was their fifth straight, another shining moment in what’s been a remarkable turnaround season following last year’s 3-9 disaster.
For Malzahn, it was a signature moment in a career born and largely bred as a high school coach in Arkansas. It came in front of a large group of friends and family, and it came at the expense of the school the Fort Smith native once briefly suited up for as a walk-on and later served as its offensive coordinator.
“Just to be completely honest, it’s just about getting our eighth win,” Malzahn said. “I’ve got a lot of friends, a lot of family and this is a special place, but you separate that and you’ve got a job to do.
“I’m very proud of our team coming in here and getting the victory.”
The win for Auburn came largely behind the running of Mason, who finished with 168 yards rushing and sent the reeling Razorbacks (3-6, 0-5) to their sixth straight loss.
It’s the longest losing streak for Arkansas since a seven-game stretch in 1990, and it extended the longest losing streak of first-year coach Bret Bielema’s career as a head coach.
Jonathan Williams had 104 yards rushing and Alex Collins add 92 on the ground for the Razorbacks, who were unable to overcome three turnovers and an early injury to quarterback Brandon Allen that led to backup AJ Derby briefly playing — resulting in two turnovers.
“It’s frustrating for me as a head coach, as an assistant, a player, a parent, an administrator, alumni and fan,” Bielema said. “I get it; I understand it.
“... I know where we need to be. We are not there yet.”
While Mason stole the spotlight on the field with touchdown runs of 9, 4, 5 and 12 yards, it was the two coaches whose budding rivalry served as the primary story line entering the game — and even at parts during it.
The two engaged in a bit of back and forth regarding player safety in a hurry-up offense this summer, and Bielema stoked the fire earlier this week by accusing Auburn of being less-than forthcoming in game video it shared with the Razorbacks.
Bielema and Malzahn briefly shook hands before the game, but it was Mason who quickly turned into the center of attention — leading a Tigers’ offense that finished with 233 yards rushing.
Mason’s third touchdown put Auburn up 28-3 to open the second half, helping secure Malzahn’s first win in four tries at Arkansas. The former high school coach in the state was 0-3 in Fayetteville as an opposing assistant coach with Tulsa and the Tigers, but he left with a convincing win after his first trip home as a head coach.
Auburn’s Nick Marshall, returning from a shoulder injury, accounted for 177 yards of total offense, including an 88-yard touchdown throw to Sammie Coates.
“Coming back to this state, it was going to be big for (Malzahn),” Coates said. “He was looking forward ... So it was big for us to come out here and do this for coach Malzahn.
“He’s a great coach. We play for him and paly for each other every game.”
The Tigers were 3-9 last season under former coach Gene Chizik, but they’ve found renewed belief under Malzahn.
Arkansas, meanwhile, has struggled mightily under its first-year coach, falling to 0-5 in the SEC for just the second time since joining the conference in 1992. The Razorbacks have lost six games in a row — lately in convincing fashion.
Zach Hocker’s 34-yard field goal in the second quarter closed Auburn’s lead to 7-3, and it was Arkansas’ first points since the opening quarter against South Carolina on Oct. 12. The points snapped a streak in which the Razorbacks had been outscored 121-0.
The Razorbacks did close to within 28-17 early in the fourth quarter after a 2-yard touchdown run by Kiero Small, but even the rally wasn’t without a show of gamesmanship by Bielema , who said the Tigers had cut out the swinging gate portion of a point-after attempt on the shared video.
Small’s touchdown came after Arkansas converted a fourth down, using a play in which the Razorbacks lined up for the first time this season in a swinging gate formation.
Even the subtle shot across the field wasn’t enough for Arkansas to overcome Mason, who responded shortly afterward with his fourth touchdown run, a 12-yard score that put the Tigers up 35-17.
“You guys read too much into that,” Bielema said.
Regardless if the call was a shot at Malzahn or not, the Arkansas native continued to downplay any rivalry between himself and Bielema after the game. He was more focused on how far Auburn has come this season, and where it’s headed.
“We just feel very blessed to be 8-1,” Malzahn said. “Just proud of this team; they’ve come a long way and just need to keep improving.”