AUBURN — Gus Malzahn tried to downplay it during the week, comparing it to when he faced Arkansas State in his first season as Auburn's head coach in 2013.
Chad Morris tried to downplay it, too, saying during an interview on Auburn's pregame radio show that his focus was solely on what the Tigers' offense needed to do to win Saturday.
But the situation wasn't the same as the one Malzahn went through in 2013. He led the Red Wolves to a 9-4 record in 2012, then left on good terms to take his first Power 5 head coaching job. Morris was fired in November after going 4-18 in less than two seasons as Arkansas' coach.
Saturday's matchup between his new offense and his former school meant something a little extra, according to his quarterback.
"Just with the way things went down and the way the situation was when he came in, obviously he had this one circled for a while," Bo Nix said after Auburn's narrow 30-28 win over the Razorbacks. "Everyone’s just really excited we got the win for him, and he’s extremely relieved."
And while it was far from a perfect showing, it was his offense that ultimately got the job done. It gave the Tigers a 27-18 lead early in the fourth quarter with a nine-play, 64-yard drive capped by a screen pass from Nix to Anthony Schwartz that the speedy wide receiver weaved 17 yards into the end zone on a crucial third-and-10.
Arkansas responded with back-to-back scoring drives sandwiching the offense's lone three-and-out, kicking a field goal to get back within one score and getting a 44-yard completion from Feleipe Franks to De'Vion Warren to take the lead with 5:29 remaining.
After the defense spent the better part of the last two seasons having to bail the offense out, the roles were reversed.
"They were a great team," Nix said. "I think part of that obviously comes from Coach Morris being there the past few years, so it just shows a testament to his character and what we got now with him on our side.”
Nix and the offense answered. Twice. First, with a seven-play, 48-yard drive that reached the red zone and may have resulted in a touchdown had Seth Williams been able to come down with a circus catch on third-and-10 from the 17. Nix's arm was responsible for the two biggest chunks, as he found an open Williams for 32 yards to push the offense into Arkansas territory, then Schwartz for 12 on the next play.
"His coaching experience was on full display there the last two drives," Nix said. "I mean, both drives we got down in field goal range pretty quickly, and so he was able to get us in the right positions, right spots. He knew what plays he wanted to call and went with it."
Anders Carlson missed a 34-yard attempt at the go-ahead kick on that drive, but Auburn gave him another chance, and he was true from 39. This one, freshman running back Tank Bigsby set up, catching a pass from Nix for 8 yards then rushing twice for gains of 9 and 8 to get the Tigers to just outside the red zone.
"Coach Morris is a great man. He’s very cool. He’s also very smart," Bigsby said. "Just letting him coach me, he’s the coach that you want. He’ll push you. Just knowing you can trust him in a moment to get us down the field."
"I feel like it meant a lot to him," the freshman running back added.
Bigsby finished with 162 total yards on 20 carries and four catches. Nix completed 17 of 28 passes for 187 yards and a score. Schwartz caught 10 passes for 100 yards, setting career-highs in both.
Auburn finished with 446 yards. It was the offense's best game yet under Morris. It just so happened to come against Arkansas.
"I’m extremely, extremely fired up that he’s on my team," Nix said. "He’s super competitive. I’ve said it since Day 1; he loves winning as much as I do, and that’s all you can ask for with your coach.”