By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — The frustration showed on Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett in the postgame interview room Saturday.
He and 10th-ranked Arkansas had just suffered a 24-20 loss to No. 1 Alabama in front of a record crowd of 76,808. And Mallett, who had been lauded all week for his performance in last week’s stirring win at Georgia, was pointing the finger at himself.
"Any loss I take personally," said Mallett, who threw a career-high three interceptions. "Especially when I play like that in the fourth quarter. I didn’t play very well."
Mallett and the Razorbacks couldn’t repeat their late-game heroics at Georgia on Saturday, missing an opportunity to knock off the defending champions in the national spotlight. Arkansas (3-1, 1-1 in Southeastern Conference), which got off to an electric start and led by as much as 20-7 in the second half, watched its upset hopes fade with an inglorious performance in the fourth quarter.
The Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0) dug in, leaned on running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson (242 combined rushing yards) and took advantage of Mallett’s late mistakes to win. As a result, Alabama extended its regular season win streak to 28 games and took an important leg up in the Southeastern Conference Western Division standings, while Arkansas was left wondering what might have been.
"We just couldn’t find a way to win it in the fourth quarter," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "We certainly had our chances."
Said offensive coordinator Garrick McGee: "They were tougher than us when the game was on the line."
It was a disappointing conclusion to a week unlike anything Fayetteville had witnessed in a long time. The Razorbacks had the top-ranked team in town for the first time since 1996. It was the first battle of top 10 teams in Fayetteville since 1979.
Arkansas spent the week imagining and believing a victory against the defending champions was possible. And for 55 memorable minutes, they Razorbacks came close to making it a reality.
But those hopes were dashed when, after Alabama put together a 16-play drive that led to a field goal, Mallett threw a pass that was picked off by Alabama’s Robert Lester. The defensive back returned it to Arkansas’ 12 and the Crimson Tide scored the go-ahead touchdown on Ingram’s one-yard run three plays later.
It wasn’t the fatal blow. That came on the ensuing possession when Mallett, trying to throw a pass out of bounds near midfield, didn’t get enough on it. Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick caught the ball, the Crimson Tide took over and ran out the final 1:48.
Mallett completed 25 of 38 passes for 357 yards with one touchdown, covering up for a run game that struggled to produce (64 yards) for the second straight week. But Mallett, who also threw an interception in the end zone in the first half, made mistakes.
He was 4 of 10 for 44 yards and 2 picks in the fourth quarter.
"We don’t throw interceptions like that," Petrino said. "That’s something we’ve got to get back and work hard at. I know the last one he was trying to throw it away and didn’t get it out."
Alabama had been 2-5 under coach Nick Saban when trailing at the half. The 17-7 deficit was also the first time Alabama had trailed by 10 points or more at the break since its loss to Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. It was the last time Alabama, which also improved to 1-0 in the SEC for the 19th-straight season, lost.
"We told our players when we came here we were going to have to change the way everybody thought," Saban said. "We were going to have to go out there and work and earn it and it would take a tremendous amount of intensity and enthusiasm and energy to do that and we didn’t have that in the first half."
Arkansas said all week it was a much-improved team after last season’s 35-7 loss at Alabama, in which Petrino said the Razorbacks didn’t believe they couldn’t win. With a raucous crowd behind them, it didn’t take long to show it Saturday.
Mallett completed a 31-yard pass to receiver Jarius Wright, who didn’t catch a ball last week at Georgia, on the first play from scrimmage. Then, he found running back Ronnie Wingo all alone out of the backfield for a 43-yard touchdown.
The two-play drive spanned 74 yards in 50 seconds.
"It was a good drive," Wingo said. "The crowd was into the game. It was electrifying. It helped us start with a good first half."
Defensively, the Razorbacks were solid, too, after giving up scores of big plays in Tuscaloosa last season. Ingram — who finished with 157 rushing yards in his second game since returning from a knee injury — scored on a 54-yard run in the first quarter.
But it was the only score Arkansas allowed until late in the third, when quarterback Greg McElroy connected with Richardson for a 20-yard touchdown pass that closed the deficit to 20-14.
"We gave up a big play in the first half that we shouldn’t have given up on the big run," said defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, whose group allowed 421 yards Saturday. "But it seemed like they earned everything they got."
Then came the fourth quarter, which surely reminded Arkansas fans of other disheartening endings like the Big Shootout in 1969 (a 15-14 loss to Texas) and last season’s 23-20 loss at No. 1 Florida.
The most unthinkable thing Saturday: The uncharacteristic mistakes from their Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. Mallett threw seven interceptions in 2009, but now has five in four games.
"I feel really bad for the kid because he is really down," McGee said. "But he turned the ball over and that got us in trouble."
Mallett’s disappointment was evident in the interview room when, still wearing his jersey and shoulder pads, tried to explain how Arkansas unraveled in the fourth quarter. Mallett was asked one final question: What does Alabama have that Arkansas doesn’t?
"Nothing," Mallett said. "Nothing. Not at all."
But Mallett was mistaken. The Crimson Tide left Fayetteville with one thing Mallett and the Razorbacks coveted — a big win.