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September 25, 2010FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. _ "Whew!"
That sound emerging from Reynolds Razorback Stadium late Saturday wasn't a cheer from the record crowd of 76,808, or Arkansas deflating from the knowledge that it'll likely miss out on another Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
Instead, it was the relief from the other side.
Athletic director Mal Moore said it along the sideline, nearly the entire University of Alabama football team displayed it and every Crimson Tide fan watching felt it.
"In order to beat us, you're going to have to kill us," senior quarterback Greg McElroy said after No. 1 Alabama escaped with a 24-20 victory over the No. 10 Razorbacks. "The important thing is it's not how you start, it's how you finish."
Although Arkansas desperately wanted to prove that it was a championship-type team, it found out that it's only "almost" as the Tide (4-0, 1-0 SEC) trailed nearly the entire game until junior running back Mark Ingram's 1-yard game-winning touchdown with 3:18 remaining. Even so, things were still dicey through a dramatic interception and gutsy fourth-down call that brought out nearly every emotion imaginable.
Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was jubilant while walking off the field, junior defensive end Marcell Dareus was one of many who were hobbling and Ingram simply looked mad.
"We were shooting ourselves in the foot," he said. "That wasn't Alabama football."
Ingram, who finished with 154 rushing yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns, was mostly referring to the first half, which got off to a disastrous start when blown assignments resulted in a 31-yard gain on the first snap and then a 41-yard touchdown by Ronnie Wingo Jr. just 50 seconds into the game. Although the Alabama quickly counted with Ingram's 54-yard touchdown run, the second-longest of his career, Arkansas rode the huge confidence boost to 250 first-half passing yards and Jarius Wright catching four balls for 103 yards.
Although the teams combined for 541 yards of total offense yards at the break, the score was just 17-7 in favor of Arkansas, with both quarterbacks having costly interceptions in the end zone.
"Saved our bacon a little bit there," Saban said of sophomore safety Robert Lester's first pick, only to see the offense drive 76 yards down to the Arkansas 4 where it did the same thing. McElroy had a second pass intercepted with 1:55 remaining, which the Razorbacks eventually converted into another seven points.
"That was really not a good half of football," Saban continued. "I really don't want the players to put it behind them. I want the players to remember what it's like not playing like the way you're capable of playing, not playing with the intensity you should have, and the focus that you need to have.
"We stopped ourselves on numerous occasions. Made a lot of mistakes on defense. Left people wide open, made a lot of big plays. To the team's credit it responded at halftime."
It started with the offense, which after Arkansas extended its lead to 20-7, took control and scored on three straight possessions. The first, 74 yards on eight plays, saw only one third down and was capped by sophomore running back Trent Richardson's 20-yard screen reception.
"I felt them tiring out," Richardson said.
The second, 66 yards on 16 plays, only led to a 36-yard field goal by Jeremy Shelley, but that's when things really started getting away from Arkansas. Getting the ball with 6:01 remaining, a holding call backed up the Razorbacks and on third-and 11 quarterback Ryan Mallett tried to throw over the middle where Lester was again waiting and returned it to the 12.
"That was huge," said Ingram, who subsequently scored on 1-yard run. "To get us the ball back, intercepted the ball and give us great field position at the 10-yard line, three runs got us in. The defense had gut-check. They were blowing things all night."
Only Mallett, who led a last-minute game-winning drive against Georgia last week, got another shot and nearly two. This time he led the Razorbacks to midfield, but on second-and-9 was pressured by end Damion Square and had his sideline throw snared by Kirkpatrick.
"I just saw the ball and I had to go get it," said Kirkpatrick, who thought Mallett was trying to throw it away. "By the grace of God I got it."
Alabama only needed a first down to finish off the Razorbacks, but instead found itself with fourth-and-inches at its own 44, and 54 seconds remaining. Saban decided to go for it.
"I thought it was awesome," sophomore guard Barrett Jones said. "Me and (center William) Vlachos went up to Coach Saban and said, 'Coach, we can get you this yard.'"
"We needed that much," Saban said while holding his fingers about four inches apart. "There's a lot of bad things than can happen when you punt."
It wasn't until McElroy's sneak was ruled a first down that the relief could finally be let out, with Arkansas (3-1, 0-1) feeling the exact opposite.
"We had them right where we wanted them," Razorbacks defensive end Jake Bequette said.
Saban called the contrast the "Tale of Two Cities," and while Alabama's offense controlled the clock its defense didn't yield a touchdown or even a third-down conversion in the second half. Arkansas never got the running game going, finishing with just 64 yards, and couldn't overcome Mallett's late interceptions.
"We were much more aggressive," Saban said. "We were so worried about making mistakes in the first half, played plain vanilla. The best thing they do is when you rush four guys and cover with seven that guy will eat you alive. You have to mess with him, get him out of his rhythm, get some pressure on him.
"Actually, when you play more aggressive the players play better and we did that in the second half. Still made some mistakes, but at least they were aggressive."
That might be the key to the next two games as well, against No. 8 Florida and No. 12 South Carolina, as Alabama continues arguably the toughest such stretch in its history. The Tide has played three consecutive top-15 teams on four other occasions (1978, 1987, 1993 and 1994), but each had a bye week mixed in.
Regardless, it'll have to play better than this.
"I think it says a lot about our toughness, that we will not be denied," McElroy said. "I can't say that enough. This team refuses to lose."