That element reappeared in a big way on Saturday afternoon.
Tight end D.J. Williams – the preseason all-SEC first-team selection - caught seven passes for a career-high 137 yards as Arkansas downed South Carolina 33-16 in front of 68,865 fans at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
"I thought we fought hard, competed hard and we did a nice job all week long," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said of a game in which his defense held an SEC foe to the fewest points in his two-year tenure. "That is where we won the game - our preparation, our practice and the leadership within the team."
Mallett completed 23-of-27 passing for 329 yards (including his last 11 throws) against the nation's third-ranked pass defense, ran for a score himself and watched tailback Broderick Green (87 yards rushing and receiving) tally a pair of touchdowns.
"We had a lot of fun out there today," Mallett said. "It started out kind of slow, but we knew once we got it going they wouldn't be able to stop us and they didn't.
"I thought we executed well and the defense played well and in the trenches I thought the offensive and defensive lines played maybe one of their best games of the year."
Four of those Mallett-to-Williams completions were third down calls.
|Marc F. Henning|
|Ryan Mallett passed for 329 yards and completed his final 11 passes in the win.|
That was big in what Petrino called a must-win game earlier in the week for his program, which Saturday matched the number of wins it had in his 5-7 initial season at the helm of the Razorbacks.
"Our mission is to get ourselves to a bowl game to get more practice time and get these young guys better," Petrino said. "I really believe that is why you build a program. You get to use those (bowl) practices and get yourself an extra spring football, get guys in a position where you know the offense and defense and then can compete in spring ball for a starting position."
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said his Gamecocks (6-4, 3-4) just lined up and got beat by a better foe on Saturday.
"They pretty much controlled the line of scrimmage," Spurrier said. "Their receivers caught about everything and they were able to run the ball. We were pretty much struggling all day. We made a couple of plays here and there, probably left a few scoring chances out there, but you have to give Arkansas credit because they played better than us today.
"They thoroughly beat us today," added Spurrier, whose team gave up 405 yards total offense while gaining 380 of its own.
Mallett did not have any interceptions and was 11-of-14 passing for 169 yards in the opening half and 12-of-13 for 160 yards after intermission.
"I thought he played real well," Petrino said. "He was very patient and took what they gave him, threw the ball for a very high percentage. I thought it was his best game as far as running the offense and being calm the entire game. He was very focused and he played well."
On all of those touchdown drives, Williams played a part with a big catch or catches to keep the offensive moving down the field.
After catching 61 passes for 723 yards and three touchdowns last season, Williams had just 23 catches for 307 yards and two scores entering this season's ninth game.
"South Carolina was really dropping deep and we knew they weren't going to give up many big plays," Petrino said. "To counter that, we had to check the ball down quite a bit. D.J. was open and was able to make some things happen and break some big plays for us."
His biggest play of the day was a 69-yard reception with six seconds left in the first half. That play was instrumental in tying the game up 10-10 on Alex Tejada's 24-yard field goal as time ran out in the opening half.
"He made some great plays," Petrino said. "That play before halftime was as big a play as there was. They were dropping deep and Ryan did a nice job of being real patient and either checking the ball down to the running backs or either getting the ball to D.J."
Williams' 7-yard catch on a third down call helped set up the final score of the afternoon – a Green 2-yard run that pushed the Razorbacks ahead 33-16 with 4:31 left in the game.
"We did call a number of plays for D.J. and he got open and made the plays," Petrino added. "We did a nice job in that fourth quarter of really converting third downs and that last one he made was huge."
That was the end of 23 unanswered points after South Carolina had taken a 16-10 lead on the first play of the third quarter via Stephen Garica's 80-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery.
Garcia was 20-of-34 passing for 327 yards, but that was his last big play of the game on a day when the Razorback defense allowed just 53 rushing yards.
"We came back and ended up shutting the run down in the second half and got after the quarterback and got some sacks (two) and made some big plays in crucial downs," Petrino said. "We bent a little bit throughout the entire game, but we continued to play very good red zone defense. It ended up where some of those stops in the red zone in the first half and the second half made the difference in the game."
South Carolina took a 3-0 advantage by scoring on its initial possession of the game after taking over at its own 29.
But it was a quite the chore for the Gamecocks to come away with those points once they got to the Razorback 6.
In fact, it took six plays, a fourth-down conversion and two timeouts before the visitors scored.
That came after a delay of game penalty on fourth and goal from the 1 when Spencer Lanning booted a 23-yard field goal at the 6:40 mark.
"We tried to run it end and we threw it here or there, but I don't know what to tell you," Spurrier said.
Arkansas responded right away with a four-play sprint covering 60 yards – a shorter field made possible by South Carolina booting the kickoff out of bounds.
|Marc F. Henning|
|Broderick Green rushed for two touchdowns and set up Arkansas' first score with this 39-yard reception.|
Tejada's PAT put the Razorbacks up with 5:16 in the opening quarter.
Petrino then gambled on a fake punt at the Arkansas 26, a move that backfired when Ronnie Wingo was hauled down for two-yard loss.
South Carolina took the gift and a 10-7 lead when Garcia scored on a 1-yard run with 12:29 left in the second quarter.
"The only bad thing on special teams was when I called a fake punt and we didn't convert it," Petrino said. "That is all on me. I thought it was there and we didn't execute it. That gave them seven points."
It was the third time a team has tried a fake punt against South Carolina and the third time that it has been unsuccessful this season.
"The best thing about is that our guys kept their poise," Petrino said.
It stayed that way until late in the half when the Razorbacks took over at their own 24 with just 22 seconds left in half.
Mallett hit Williams on a tight end screen and he raced the 69 yards all the way to the South Carolina 7.
Williams – a 6-2, 251-pound junior - looked as if he was going to score, but avoided a tackler that was being blocked and gave out.
"When he broke that long run, well he is kind of clumsy or I would have a touchdown right now," Mallett said while laughing. "He tripped over the 5-yard line. It must have jumped up and got him. But he had a great game, blocking and passing."
|Marc F. Henning|
|Joe Adams' 18-yard touchdown run gave Arkansas its first lead of the game.|
That deadlock lasted just one play into the third quarter when Garcia connected the deep throw to Jeffery to stun the Razorback crowd.
The 80-yard connection – ironically coming after Tejada got his first touchback in two years – was the longest play in the careers of both of the South Carolina players.
However, a bobbled PAT snap kept the kick from getting away and left South Carolina holding a 16-10 lead with 14:47 remaining.
The Razorbacks answered right back with an 11-play, 87-yard drive.
Key plays on the drive were Mallett's 17-yard pass to senior London Crawford and his 26-yard completion to Williams down to the Gamecocks 9.
On the latter play, Arkansas had four tight ends in the game – Williams, Ben Cleveland, Colton Nash and Van Stumon all lined up on or near the line of scrimmage.
Mallett's beautiful fake on a third and 1 left Williams wide open.
The quarterback actually took it the final yard himself on the drive and Tejada's PAT gave the Razorbacks a 17-16 advantage.
South Carolina looked to be racing into the end zone on its ensuing position, but Jerell Norton ended that threat with an interception at the goal line.
"I recognized the play, knew what was coming and just did my job," said Norton, who also had a 38-yard punt return to set up a score.
A 46-yard pass from Mallett to Greg Childs quickly flipped the field, Green scored on a 2-yard run and Tejada added the PAT for a 24-16 Arkansas lead with exactly 3 minutes left in the third quarter.
"Our record doesn't indicate how good we are and how good we still can be," Mallett said. "We wanted to come out here and show everybody that they might have the number three pass defense in the nation, but we are going to throw it on them."
Norton's pick made up for one he had dropped earlier in the third quarter that he likely would have taken back some 60 yards for a score.
"That was huge," Petrino said. "He made a great play. You know he almost had one earlier, but he dropped it. He read the route and jumped it. That play in the end zone – that is a big, tall receiver and I thought Jerell did an excellent job elevating. "Jerell has great ball skills," Petrino added. "He is probably our best defensive back as far as playing the ball and catching the balls."
Norton has bounced back and forth between safety and cornerback in his career – as he has this season.
"Earlier in the year we thought we could get him more involved at safety, play the middle of the field and get more interceptions," Petrino said. "But the last three weeks we have had him back working at corner and he did a nice job today."
Norton did not play last week – due to what was termed coach's decision.
"This week my number was called and I knew I had to step up and perform in that situation," Norton said.
A rushed Shotgun snap got away from Garcia – with the result being a loss of 32 yards and a safety late in the third quarter to give the Hogs a 26-16 lead. Jerico Nelson knocked the ball away from Garcia as he was trying to cover it and then Elton Ford jumped on the Gamecocks' Brian Maddox as he landed on the ball in the end zone.
"I think Stephen was looking, but it just went right through his hands with a lot of velocity," Spurrier said. "That was about a 40-yard, two-point play there."
South Carolina – who has lost three of its last four games - catches no breaks in its last two games of the season by traveling to No. 1 Florida next week and then meeting arch-rival Clemson in its final regular season contest.
"We are just not real good right now," Spurrier said. "I don't know how else to say it. We are coaching our butts off, but we are just not getting the results right now. Maybe all the good fortune we had earlier is catching up with us now."
Arkansas will try to keep its drive alive – not only for a bowl, but a strong finish to the regular season.
The Razorbacks will host nonconference foe Troy next Saturday at 6:30 before finishing the regular season against Mississippi State in Little Rock and visiting LSU in Baton Rouge.
"We need one more game to be bowl eligible, but that is not our goal – just to be bowl eligible," Mallett said. "We want to win out and so if we execute like we did today, we can do that."