FAYETTEVILLE - It may not be as good as it was last year, but the defending national champion Alabama is not ready to turn over the throne just yet.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide scored the last 17 point of the game to down No. 10 Arkansas 24-20 Saturday afternoon in front of a school-record 76,808 fans at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
"I am proud of the way our football team prepared, the way we practiced," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said. "We came out and I thought we competed extremely hard. We did a good job in the first half of getting the lead, getting turnovers and then we just couldn't find a way to win it in the fourth quarter. We certainly had our chances. They are a very good football team and you can't take anything away from them. I am proud of the way they competed and stuck together."
The Razorbacks (3-1, 1-1) appeared poised to end Alabama's 27-game regular season winning streak when leading 20-7 late in third quarter, but could not hold off the visitors.
The Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0) scored on Trent Richardson's screen with 44 seconds left in the third quarter, Jason Shelley's 36-yard field goal with 6:01 left and then took the lead 24-20 when Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram scored on a 1-yard run with 3:18 remaining.
"First of all, a great job by our guys in the second half," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "Arkansas has a very good team and did a great job. We told the players when we came here that we were going to have to change the way everybody thought. We were going to have to go out there and work and earn it and it would take a tremendous amount of intensity and enthusiasm and energy to do that and we did not in the first half.
Alabama's winning points came after Robert Lester's second interception of the game - one of Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett's 3 during the contest.
Mallett, who was 25-for-38 passing for 357 yards and a touchdown, threw his third pick of the game - one hauled in by Dre Kirkpatrick with 1:48 left in the contest.
Alabama then converted a fourth-and-1 at its own 45 to run out the clock in a game where each team had 421 yards total offense.
"We really took advantage of them in some ways and some ways we didn't execute," Mallett said. "We started off really good. We just came out in the second half and forgot to finish. We should've finished that game off and had a win right now."
Arkansas junior defensive end Jake Bequette echoed that same sentiment.
"It was very disappointing," Bequette said. "We had them right where we wanted them. We had them down in the fourth quarter and just didn't get it done."
Alabama wideout Julio Jones may have summed it up best.
"It's a 60-minute game," Jones said. "It ain't no 30-minute game."
Ingram had 24 carries for 157 yards and two touchdowns as the Crimson Tide rushed for 227 yards while Arkansas had just 64 on the ground.
"We looked like for a little bit there we were going to be able to establish the run, but then we got behind the sticks and penalties hurt us," Petrino said. "We just couldn't convert the third downs. We had our opportunities. We just couldn't make it happen."
The Razorbacks have next Saturday off and then face Texas A&M at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium on Oct. 9.
"We just need to respond well after this game," Petrino said. "It's going to be hard and it will take some time. The good thing is that we have a bye next week. We'll be able to take a deep breath and regroup. A game like this is something that builds character and we'll be able to find out what we are made of."
Petrino took time to thank the students, who had built a tent city at the stadium this week, and the rest of the fans who showed up Saturday.
"It was a great week and I can't tell you how much they gave us a big lift in our preparation," Petrino said. "It was an awesome sight when we came to the stadium today and throughout the entire game."
Mallett was sharp in the first half while going 15-for-22 for 301 yards with a passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown and one pick.
He was 10-for-16 after the break for just 56 yards with the two interceptions after intermission as the Razorbacks had just 120 yards of total offense in the final two quarters.
"I thought he did a real nice job in the first half," Petrino said. "He got us going and he was executing real well. Then in the second half we didn't execute as well as we would have liked to on on offense. That always has to do with everybody - how we are blocking, how we are doing running our routes, how we are running the ball. We need to go score points and have a second half like we did first half."
Arkansas wasted a standout effort from Jarius Wright with six catches for 131 yards.
"It's just the way the offense works," Petrino said. "It was nothing like we came out and said 'we are going to throw the ball to Jarius.' He has been working extremely hard. I have been proud of his attitude. He hasn't had as many touches as he would like. You just have to be patient and hang in there and understand your time will come. That is really how it ends up working. It rotates around to a receiver that is going to be open that time gets the ball the most."
Arkansas roared out of the gate, covering 74 yards in just two plays to send the crowd into a frenzy.
Mallett hit Wright short and he turned it into a 31-yard gain and then the quarterback found a wide open Ronnie Wingo down the left sideline.
Wingo had to avoid one defender near the goal like, but did so and completed a 43-yard scoring play just 50 seconds into the game.
Zach Hocker's PAT pushed Arkansas ahead 7-0 at the 14:10 mark.
Alabama answered about eight minutes later when Ingram ripped off a 54-yard run and Shelly's PAT tied it 7-7 with 6:21 left in the first quarter.
The Razorbacks would mount a 12-play, 52-yard drive that lasted nearly five minutes before settling for Hocker's 31-yard field goal to go up 10-7 with 1:42 left in the opening period.
Both teams had chances to score in the second quarter, but Mallett and McElroy both were picked off in the end zone.
Lester picked off the Arkansas signal caller while Andru Stewart robbed the Alabama QB.
"It is great if you get two interceptions on a quarterback like Mallett," Lester said.
As it did in both halves against Georgia last week, the Razorback offense excelled in its two-minute offense.
Mallett zipped his team down the field, covering 66 yards in seven plays and 100 seconds before sneaking it in himself from a yard out.
Hocker was true on the PAT to surge Arkansas ahead 17-7 with 15 seconds left.
His 48-yard field goal – the second of that length in two weeks – got Arkansas ahead 20-7 with 5:04 left in the game.
"We pressured to start off the game," Bequette said. "I think at the beginning we kind of tapered off of that and played more hard base defense, and it was working. We didn't stop the run as well as we needed too and we didn't finish at the end."
Alabama had an 8-play, 74-yard drive capped by a 20-yard screen pass to Trent Richarson in which he did most of the work to get into the end zone.
Shelley's PAT cut Arkansas' lead to 20-14 with 44 seconds left in the third quarter.
"The final drive was good for Alabama," Petrino said. "Our problem was that we couldn't get them off the field, especially on third down. That last drive was like eight minutes long and they just made plays in the end."
His 36-yarder with 6:01 left set up the final theatrics.
"We just couldn't find a way to get it done in the fourth quarter," Petrino said. "We had the opportunity and just couldn't get it done."
Bobby Petrino shouts instruction.
Broderick Green churns down the sideline.
D. J. Williams prepares to cut.
Greg Childs pulls in a pass.
Photos by Marc F. Henning