MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The old saying proved to be true here Saturday night: defense wins championships.
It was a Liberty Bowl championship Arkansas walks from Memphis with in 2010, thanks largely in part to a pair of interceptions early in the third quarter.
First, Jerry Franklin jumped a route and returned it 31 yards to set up Alex Tejada's first field goal. Then, safety Tramain Thomas picked East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney and took it back 37 yards for a touchdown.
In the blink of an eye the same East Carolina team that had built a 10-0 lead and completely controlled the first half, found itself tied with 9:04 left in the third quarter in a hostile environment.
"I think the biggest turnaround was when our defense got the two interceptions and basically gave us 10 points," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "That got us back in the game."
Thomas got the start after senior safety Matt Harris was suspended earlier in the week for a curfew violation. Ironically, Franklin was starting at middle linebacker because of a suspension to starter Wendel Davis for the same incident.
Despite being thrown into the fire Thomas said he felt confident he could make the play because of a solid week of preparation leading up to the game.
"The coaches put us in the right situations to make plays," Thomas said. "It was just us watching film on them and doing all of our preparation in practice. Basically, what you saw was the thing that led up to this point was stuff that we did in film. I just ran my cues, and it was right there like the coach had said."
Thomas' pick was Arkansas' second defensive touchdown of the season. Jerry Franklin had recorded the other on an 85-yard fumble return against Texas A&M in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium on Oct. 3.
Like that Texas A&M game, the defensive touchdown turned out to be a turning point in the game.
East Carolina had dominated time of possession in the second quarter and looked to be doing more of the same early in the third. Prior to Franklin's interception the Pirates had moved the ball to the 49-yard line in four plays.
East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said Arkansas wasn't doing anything differently after halftime; just made plays on the ball.
"They played a lot more man coverage in the second half like we said they would," Holtz said. "Then the second interception for six was just zone. The wide receiver went a little bit deep and he has to come across the face of the safety. He kind of took too steep of an angle and the safety moved into the hole. It wasn't a scheme thing. It wasn't like they did something really different."
Holtz lamented on a handful of missed opportunities afterward.
"It was just real unfortunate," Holtz said. "We made the two interception mistakes and missed three field goals. Outside of that I wouldn't change a thing in that game and would call it a dang near perfect game."
For Arkansas it was just imperfect enough.
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