By Justin Graves
The Cullman Times
Onterio McCalebb thought he got there.
The official said otherwise.
A sterling kickoff return that could have been a touchdown was ruled a 99-yard sprint that ended on the 1-yard line.
“I thought I had it; thought it was a touchdown,” the Auburn kick returner said.
Oh well, Onterio, the damage had already been done.
Auburn quarterback Cam Newton dove over the pile three plays later, scoring a crucial touchdown in the third quarter of the Tigers’ 65-43 win over No. 12 Arkansas Saturday night.
Like a large chunk of Auburn’s points — in an offensive shootout where every point was crucial — that touchdown was the byproduct of strong special teams play.
McCalebb and Demond Washington combined for 221 yards and a touchdown on kickoff returns. The Tigers also blocked a punt deep in Arkansas territory that led to a touchdown, while Wes Byrum kicked two field goals.
Those plays were the difference in what was a close game for more than three quarters.
Don’t believe it? Ask the losing coach.
“We got beat in the kicking game,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “There’s no question, they had a huge advantage on special teams. It was a big difference in field position, and it made a big difference in the outcome of the game.”
Auburn had several big gains on special teams. Arkansas had none.
The Razorbacks averaged a pedestrian 17.9 yards per kickoff return.
“(The Auburn kickoff team) is filled with a bunch of freshmen, and they understand that’s their role this year on this football team because we were very poor at it last year,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “It is that simple. You have a bunch of guys who have really bought into that role, but if you look closely, you are going to see a few guys who want to be on that team.
“You are going to see a Darvin Adams … an Eric Smith covering kickoffs. With some of our older guys mixed in with the younger guys, they understand that field position wins games.”
This wasn’t a first-time occurence. Chizik has been pleased with Auburn’s special-teams play as a whole this year.
“Our special teams, they may be one of the best special teams around,” Chizik said. “Coach (Jay) Boulware has done a fantastic job with our special teams, and that’s helped us in field position.”