Much-maligned junior kicker Alex Tejada drilled a 37-yard field goal in overtime to lift the Razorbacks to a 20-17 win over East Carolina Saturday before a mostly red-clad crowd of 62,742 fans braving temperatures in the 20s.
Tejada, who was 2 of 3 on his kicks during the game, missed a go-ahead boot early in the fourth quarter, but Pirate kicker Ben Hartman missed his final three – including an overtime one - to allow his counterpart another chance to be a hero.
"I just stayed relaxed, stayed poised," Tejada said. "I've been in this situation before and it was no different. I've just got to go out there and hit it. I was pretty confident. This team has stayed behind me all year. It was hard, I found faith, I just stayed confident, stayed up and went out there and did my job."
Tejada's miss was a 43-yarder into the wind, while his makes of 25 and 37 were with the wind in a victory that gave the Razorbacks their fifth win in their final six games of the season.
"I was pretty confident," Tejada said. "I felt like the wind was blowing really favorably that way, so going into overtime I felt good about our chances to win the game. Once I stepped up, I had all the confidence that it was going to go through."
"I am very, very proud of our football team," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said. "I am really happy for our (14) seniors. I can't tell you how much they led this team, how our preparation was and our meetings. The seniors had a great deal to do with that and really came out and competed.
"It was a hard, hard game," Petrino added. "It was certainly not easy. We just kept battling. I think the biggest turnaround was in the third quarter when our defense got the two interceptions and basically gave us 10 points and put us right in the game."
Conversely, East Carolina head coach and former Fayetteville native Skip Holtz, can't think of a worse way for the Conference USA champion Pirates (9-5) to close out their campaign.
Dominique Lindsey had 33 carries for 151 yards, but was stopped on a crucial third down in overtime and then the Pirates were helped after their field goal was missed.
"First of all, hell of a game," Holtz said. "Tough loss, but I was proud of this football team today. We came out and played with a lot of focus, determination, effort and energy. I thought they played with every once of fiber they had in their body. I thought we played a heckuva game."
It was quite the ending to the season for Tejada, who was 14-for-19 coming into the game, but had his season being defined by crucial misses at Florida in mid-season and at LSU in the regular season finale.
"It's pretty sweet," Tejada said. "LSU left a bitter taste in my mouth. I've been in these situations lots of times. This time I just felt it was a little different. I handled it differently. I just stuck with my technique and just went out there and did my job to help this team win.
"All night I just felt pretty confident in my swing," Tejada added. "Even after the one I missed, I just stuck with it. It didn't bother me. I knew I was going to get another chance and I did. It was different this time."
Petrino was certainly pleased for the young man.
"I am really happy for Alex to come in there and kick the winning field goal," Petrino said. "I think that is the great way to finish the season."
Razorback quarterback Ryan Mallett was named the MVP of the game, but was just 15-fo-36 passing for 202 yards (with his 30th TD pass of the season) and Arkansas rushed for just 81 yards on 20 attempts.
"Offensively we never did find a good rhythm and we didn't execute as well as we are used to," Petrino said. "But we stayed in there and fought and kept working."
The aforementioned interceptions by Jerry Franklin and Arkansas defensive MVP Tramain Thomas – who took his back 37 yards for a score - got the Razorbacks back into a 10-10 tie with just over five minutes gone in the third quarter.
"First of all, I would like to say that our coaches put us in the right situations to make plays," said Thomas, who started for suspended senior Matt Harris. "It was just us watching film on them and doing all of our preparation in practice. Bascially what we saw were things that led up to that point were stuff that we did in film. Basically, I just ran my cues, and it was right there just like the coach said."
The two teams traded touchdowns later in the quarter with ECU's Patrick Pinkney hitting Dwayne Harris for a 13-yard TD and Mallett connecting on a 41-yard scoring bomb to Jarius Wright.
It was a scoreless fourth quarter as Tejada missed his 43-yarder with 10:17 and Hartman missing a pair of 39-yard attempts.
Hartman hit the left upright with 1:03 and then sailing one wide right as time expired.
Holtz said he never thought about switching from Hartman, who during the game became the school's all-time leading scorer.
"You have your all-time kicker and you look at him with a dead heart and if he misses one, you think the odds are in your favor," Holtz said. "If you are talking about a guy with game-winning experience and I would have put somebody out there and he would have missed it, I would have said ‘gosh, Ben missed two so he is due to make this one.'"
Hartman then was wide left on a 35-yarder when his team got the ball first in overtime.
"Obviously I can relate to that," Tejada said. "It's tough. I know that he had a pretty good year so I was really surprised. Once we got to overtime I knew we had a chance to win and I was pretty confident after that one (in overtime) I thought we would go and score a touchdown or make a field goal. At that point I was pretty confident we were going to win the game and we did."
Arkansas gained just six yards on three plays and then brought Tejada out. Rhett Richardson's snap was good, Austin Tucker's hold was perfect and Tejada was true.
He took off running to the other end of the field and was mobbed by his teammates.
"Afterwards, it was crazy," Tejada said with a laugh before cracking a joke. "I was trying to run inside to get some warmth. It was pretty cold out there. I'm happy for the win and I'm happy for the seniors to go out with a win. This team battled and we found a way to win."
Jarius Wright was named the Razorbacks' offensive MVP with 4 catches for 90 yards on a day when the UA wideouts and running back dropped several catchable balls and Mallett sailed others high.
Broderick Green was Arkansas' leading rusher with 50 yards on 11 carries.
"I wouldn't really say it was their defense," Mallett said. "We just didn't get into a rhythm. I'm not going to take anything away from them. They've got a lot of seniors on their defense. They made plays and we didn't at some times, and sometimes we did. I'd say that is what contributed to our slow start is that we just didn't make plays."
The Razorbacks had just 136 yards in the opening half, half of that nearly coming on a first drive that resulted in a fumble in Pirates territory.
Holtz' defense then controlled the rest of the half.
"We talked all week about what they had done in the Southeastern Conference and how physical they were and what it would take to win, and I couldn't be more proud of the way our offensive and defensive lines played…When they go 0-13 on third downs, it's a pretty good day for what you are doing defensively. I thought our defense played awesome."
Dylan Breeding's punt pinned East Calrolina down at its own 1 yard line, but the Pirates responded with a 13-play, 99-yard drive.
ECU got most of its yardage via the ground, including Lindsey getting the last 3 yards for the score.
Thr drive took nearly seven minutes off the clock and Hartman's PAT boosted his team ahead 7-0 with 7:03 left in the second quarter.
"A guy like Dominique Lindsey – just heart, soul and energy and the way he played," Holtz said. "The offensive line played great."
The Pirates would push that to 10-0 when Hartman drilled a 33-yard field goal – one that came after another sustained drive of 11 plays and 58 yards.
ECU had a 18:12 to 11:48 time of possession advantage in the opening half with Pinkney (17 of 33 for 209 yards passing) controlling the offense.
Arkansas caught its first break of the game just into the second half when Franklin picked off a Pickney pass.
He returned it 31 yards to the Pirates 20, but the Razorbacks had to end up settling for Tejada's 25-yard field that cut it to 10-3 with 10:41 left in the third quarter.
Thomas took care of that himself just over a minute later by swiping a Pinkney pass and running it in 37 yards untouched for a score.
Tejada's PAT tied it 10-10 at the 9:04 mark.
ECU responded right back with an 8-play, 54 yard jaunt, capped by Pinkney's 13-yard scoring toss to Dewayne Harris.
But it took Arkansas just two plays to match that –Green on a 19-yard run and Mallett going deep to Wright for the final 41 yards.
When Tejada's PAT was true, the Razorbacks and Pirates were all knotted up 17-17 with 5:16 remaining in the third quarter.
That was all the scoring as the field goals all went awry until Tejada's game-winner.
"When you look at it, he comes down to the turnovers at the start of the third quarter and the three missed field goals," Holtz said. "One went right, one hit the cross bar and one went left. It seemed like we were all over the map."
Petrino wanted to make one thing clear when asked by a reporter if he thought his had been outplayed.
"We won the football game," Petrino said. "We beat them. That is what it is all about. I'm not sure who outplayed who. But we won the game. Our guys battled hard."