But Auburn didn’t need to see that sharp display of pitch and catch in Arkansas’ 42-38 road victory at Texas A&M last week for the 15th-ranked Tigers to know what they face Saturday when they take on the 10th-ranked Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, Ark.
All Auburn has to do is throw on the game film from last year when Wilson came off the bench to replace injured starter Ryan Mallett and almost passed the Razorbacks to victory before the Tigers pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 65-43 victory.
As Auburn (4-1, 2-0 SEC) and Arkansas (4-1, 0-1 SEC) prepare for a key SEC West showdown, Wilson’s performance has not been forgotten by either school.
“I was extremely impressed,” said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. “I didn’t know a lot about (Wilson) because you usually don’t know a lot about backups going into games. You know who they are, but you don’t really know how productive they can be. I thought he did an unbelievable job on the road in a very critical game at the time of coming in and playing very sound and solid football. For a guy coming off the bench and not expecting to play, I thought he showed an unbelievable amount of poise, and I thought he played really well.”
When Auburn and Arkansas played last season, the game was billed as a showdown between Mallett and Auburn’s multi-talented quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
Wilson was an afterthought, a redshirt sophomore backup, likely to play only in a blowout or if Mallett got injured.
When Mallett left the game with a concussion in the second quarter, Wilson’s role became a bit more important.
Arkansas led 14-10 when Wilson first entered the game, but Auburn’s defensive players were already convinced the tide had turned in the Tigers’ favor.
Defensive end Ladarious Owens remembers former defensive line coach Tracy Rocker saying during the week of preparation for the game, “If we take out Mallett, then we win the game.”
“We took him out and the dude (Wilson) came in, not even warming up, and threw it like 60 yards,” Owens said. “It was like, ‘Uh oh.’ He’s a pretty good passer.”
Wilson confirmed that early assessment by completing 25 of 34 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns.
The last of his four TD passes, a 23-yarder to Greg Childs, put Arkansas ahead 43-37 with 14:09 to play in the game.
From there, Newton directed a touchdown drive to put the Tigers ahead 44-43.
After that, Auburn took advantage of a total meltdown by the Razorbacks to make the game look like a high-scoring rout.
Zac Etheridge returned an Arkansas fumble 47 yards for a touchdown, and the Tigers followed that score by converting two Wilson interceptions into touchdowns to account for the final margin.
“Obviously, it didn’t end the way we’d like it,” Wilson said earlier this week. “We had some success, especially second quarter, third quarter, early fourth quarter. I think it was good we had the lead. We just didn’t finish last year. But we’re a year better. I am and I know the guys around me are. So I expect us to close in the final minutes like we did last week.”
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said last year’s performance against Auburn was instrumental in Wilson’s development.
“A year ago, he came off the sidelines and threw the ball real well and competed real well,” Petrino said. “I think that helped him throughout the offseason. He probably doesn’t think a whole lot about it after that. He’s concentrating on what we’re about this year. What his job is to execute. One week at a time as a football player.”
Wilson’s numbers this season speak volumes about his development as a quarterback.
Through five games, he’s second in the SEC behind Tennessee’s Tyler Bray in passing average per game and passing efficiency.
Wilson has completed 111 of 172 passes (64.5 percent) for 1,517 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
He leads the SEC in attempts, completions, and passing yards.
“It’s a different year,” Wilson said. “Last year is behind us, but obviously you have some reflection about having some success against Auburn last year. But it’s a new year, a new ball game. We’re gonna come out slinging.”
As for Auburn, the Tigers say Wilson caught them by surprise last year, but won’t this year.
“We underestimated that guy when he came in the game last year,” said Auburn defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker. “We were all excited. ‘We got the backup, we got the great Mallett out. Let’s rush him.’ And we rushed him and he threw it all over the place. ‘Oh, no. He’s good too.’ So now, the deal is, he’s earned our respect. And that’s how we’re going to come at him. With a lot of respect. We’ve just got to get him knocked down, got to get him on the ground. Got to. Got to.”