ARLINGTON, Texas - It certainly was not the University of Arkansas' best offensive effort of the season, especially for the last three quarters, but a win is a win is a win.
Ryan Mallett passed for 310 yards and two-first half scores and the No. 11 Razorbacks overcame a rash of penalties to down Texas A&M 24-17 before 65,622 fans at Cowboys Stadium in the second annual Southwest Classic.
The game ended with Tramain Thomas picking off Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson's hail mary pass just outside of the end zone.
"It came down to the last second," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said. "I always talk to our team about playing hard and playing for four quarters and that certainly was a game that came down to the last second. Great play by safety Tramain Thomas."
Thomas reacted differently this time than he did during the same situation at Georgia earlier this season.
"Last play I knew they were trying to get it to (Jeff Fuller), so I just came up and intercepted it," Thomas said. "I tried to knock it down against Georgia and they almost caught it so I had it in my mindset that I was going to go up and get the ball."
Knile Davis had a career-high 82 rushing yards of his team's 132 as Arkansas (4-1) won the nonconference game despite a whopping 13 penalties for 108 yards.
Broderick Green added 18 carries for 58 yards.
"The main thing was building the coach's confidence to run the ball," Davis said. "I think we did in the first quarter with the big run. so we just continue to run it."
The Razorbacks rolled up 226 yards of their 442 yards in the opening quarter and then sputtered over the last three quarters.
"Offensively, obviously, we are not used to executing like that, but you have got to give them credit," Petrino said.
Mallett said that the Aggies' crowd probably caused some of the penalties.
"It was crazy," Mallett said. "A&M has great fans and we have the best fans in the nation. They did little cheers and it got real loud out there. I think it caused problems for both teams and things like that. It's a great place to play. It is probably the nicest stadium in the world. I don't think anything compares to this. The fans were great. It was a hard fought game."
That means that the Razorbacks defense did a great job during its second half of play on a day where one of the Aggies' two TDs was one that took four plays to get two yards.
The UA defenders hounded Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson into a 15-of-40 passing day. "I was really proud of our defense," Petrino said. "I thought we played fast, we played physical, we did a nice job on mixing things up and giving the quarterback different looks and just really controlled the game on defense."
Petrino lauded A&M's defense for its play.
"They've been playing good defense all year long, they put good pressure on you with their different looks, they threw a couple of spin looks in, where they look like they were bringing up the one side and then spun it to the other side."
Petrino stressed that his pass-happy offense was going to run the ball this week even as it was going up against one of the nation's top run-defense.
"We did run the ball better, but we need to convert our third downs (6-of-17) and we need to be able to protect our quarterback and hit plays when they are open. We had some good plays that could have made a huge difference in the game and we just missed them. It's a hard-fought good victory and we will certainly take it."
Arkansas – playing its first game since a Sept. 25 loss to No. 1 Alabama – will now play at Auburn next Saturday.
South Carolina upset the No. 1 Crimson Tide 35-21 on Saturday leaving Auburn and LSU the only unbeaten SEC teams.
That puts the Razorbacks' conference and divisional destinies back in their own hands.
"We just want to focus on Auburn," noted Arkansas linebacker Anthony Leon, who led his team with 8 tackles. "We'll watch a lot of film, practice hard and execute and try to get the win against Auburn."
A&M, who plays Big 12 conference foe Missouri next week, was not happy with its near miss and its second loss after a 3-0 start.
"As I said to the players after the game. we prepared and we came up here with mindset to win the football game," Aggies head coach Mike Shernman said. "We didn't do it. Regadless of people saying, 'well, you played a good game.' We can't accept that because we didn't come away with a victory."
Texas A&M (3-2) did not good a good performance from Johnson, the Big 12's Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
Johnson – who had 10 turnovers and been sacked 10 times in his last two games - was harassed into the 15-of-40 passing day for 212 yards by the Razorbacks although he did toss a touchdown pass and only had 1 turnover on Saturday.
"The constant movement of their defense makes it hard," Johnson said of the Razorbacks. "One thing Coach has constantly said in practice is don't show anything too soon. They show you one thing and then give you something else. They run every type of coverage you can think of. They throw the kitchen sink at you and at the same time they are still sound in their coverage. My hat's off to their defense."
Sherman's hat was off to his beleaguered quarterback.
"He's a consummate competitor and competitors have good days and bad days," Sherman said. "I'd be lying to say that he didn't internalize a little pressure on himself to make sure he didn't have any miscues with the football, but it didn't take away his aggressiveness."
The Aggies' defense did bow up and only allow three points off of three turnovers on their own end of the field.
"We caused (had) three turnovers on offense and gave up three points," Sherman said. "Against that (Arkansas offense), we did a pretty good job of responding to the adversity of the ball game against a very good offensive team.
"Arkansas is better team than they were a year ago and we are a better team," Sherman added about rematch of a game that Arkansas won 47-19 last season.
The Razorbacks did miss a field goal in those three aforementioned series and also tried a fake field goal that went horribly wrong.
"Bad call," Petrino said. "Anytime it doesn't work, it is a bad call. There's not a question about it, that's a bad call. We worked on it all week. They gave us a look in the previous extra points and field goal, but it didn't work so it's a bad call."
Arkansas roared down the field for its third opening drive possession in as many games.
The jaunt was an 8-play, 80-yard one that was highlighted by Davis' 45-yard run to the Aggie 12 and then Mallett's 9-yard scoring toss to Adams.
Hocker's PAT gave the Razorbacks a 7-0 lead with 10:51 showing in the opening quarter.
Mallett gift-wrapped a touchdown for the Aggies on the Razorbacks' second possession – albeit it took four plays for A&M to get the bow off.
His pass was picked by Terrence Federick at the Arkansas 36 and returned to the 2.
Four plays later, Christian Michael burst from the 1 when A&M decided against field goal and Randy Bullock's PAT made it 7-7 at the 5:27 mark of the opening quarter.
Arkansas needed just 3 plays to respond with Mallett going up top for 71 yards to Cobi Hamilton, who styled his way into the end zone for the last 30-plus yards.
Hocker's PAT boosted it 14-7 with 4:04 showing.
"Cobi is a great player for us," Petrino said. "You look at the opening game and the year and the big plays he made in the game. He's a guy that can make plays with the ball up in the air. We have got to continue to give him touches and he is going to make plays. I thought he did a really nice job."
That lead grew to 21-7 when Mallett connected with senior tight end Ben Cleveland for a 6-yard TD with 53 seconds left in the half.
But Texas A&M got a 36-yard kickoff return and that put them in position to race down the field.
Johnson's 31 yard pass to Jeff Fuller over Darius Winston got the Aggies with 21-14 with 8 seconds left in the half.
Bullock's 38-yard field goal with 7:56 left in the third quarter was matched by Hocker's 39-yarder early in the fourth to make it 24-17.
That turned out to be the final score as both defenses dug in.
Thomas said his unit is determined to answer the call this season.
"We got a lot of criticism on the off-season and we went out and worked our butts off," Thomas said. "The hard work is paying off for us right now and we are going to take it all the way. Wwe were giving away a lot of plays last year, so I think we grew a lot this year and it is showing."
Cobi Hamilton churns for yardage.
Ryan Mallett scrambles up the middle.
Knile Davis fights off an Aggie after a long run.
Greg Childs sets up a TD with a 26-yard catch.
Colton Miles-Nash closes in on A&M's Ryan Swope.
Ramon Broadway couldn't hold this possible interception late in the game.
Tramain Thomas clinched the victory with an interception.
Tramain Thomas goes up on the sideline to knock down a long pass.
Photo by Marc F. Henning