ATHENS, Ga. — For eight months, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino and the Razorbacks had gone on and on about winning games on the road in the fourth quarter.
Toughen up as a team both mentally and physically, they said. Play with confidence, poise and passion. Put yourself in position to win with your performance early in games, but wrap things up with dominance at the end.
Arkansas’ 31-24 win against Georgia in front of an announced crowd of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium didn’t really go the way the Razorbacks planned Saturday. But in the end, Petrino’s bunch could say one thing: Mission accomplished.
Quarterback Ryan Mallett perfectly executed a game-winning drive in the final minute, guiding the Razorbacks 73 yards in 32 seconds to hand the Bulldogs (1-2, 0-2 in SEC) a stunning defeat. The final act came with 15 seconds remaining, when he connected with receiver Greg Childs and the junior sprinted to the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown.
It snapped Arkansas’ six-game SEC road losing streak, handing the Razorbacks (3-0, 1-0 in SEC) their first road win since beating Auburn 25-22 in 2008.
“Any time you can come in the SEC in somebody’s house and win, that’s obviously a benchmark for you,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said. “We did that.”
“That’s a major stepping stone for us.”
It also set up a big battle against defending national champion Alabama in Fayetteville on Saturday.
Even if it didn’t come easy for the Razorbacks.
“It definitely was a rough game,” Arkansas cornerback Ramon Broadway said. “But we kept swinging. It seemed like stuff was not going our way, but you’ve got to stay focused and say, ‘I’m going to go out and make this play.’”
Arkansas did almost everything right through three quarters. The Razorbacks scored on their opening drive with a Mallett’s 57-yard touchdown to Chris Gragg on a well-executed play-action pass, then moved the ball well despite a struggling ground game. The defense pressured and harassed Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray through most of the game, too, after surrendering an early touchdown.
It all culminated in a 24-10 lead after three quarters.
But things unraveled quickly.
Murray led the Bulldogs on a 62-yard scoring drive to close the deficit to 24-17 with 7:52 left in the game. The offense sputtered and gave the ball back. Then, Murray helped Georgia tie the game with a 52-yard drive that was capped by running back Washaun Ealey’s 3-yard score.
“We knew going in the game it was going to be very difficult,” Petrino said. “It was going to be tough. It was going to be a fourth-quarter win and you’ve got to respond.
“We stuttered a little bit in the fourth quarter and we put our defense in a bad situation with field position.”
The game-winning drive wasn’t the only critical part of the final minutes. It fact, it was just the final piece.
Two other things happened that proved to be critical moments in the win. First, Arkansas punter Dylan Breeding delivered a 57-yard punt from the end zone with little more than two minutes remaining to keep the Bulldogs off the Razorbacks side of the field during their final drive.
Then, with Georgia at midfield and facing third-and-4, defensive end Jake Bequette sacked Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (and even ripped off Murray’s helmet on the play) to put a sound end to the Bulldogs’ attempt to score late.
“They had all the momentum at that point,” Bequette said. “As a defensive unit, we had to make a big play somehow. We had to find it within ourselves to just dig deep and do something, and I was lucky enough to make a play.”
Arkansas took the ball at its own 27 after a punt and Mallett began the game-winning march with 47 seconds left.
He opened the drive by finding D.J. Williams for an 18-yard gain. Then Mallett hit Williams again for 15 more.
Petrino described them as “bread and butter plays.”
Then he hit Childs, who broke a tackle attempt by Georgia defensive back Shawn Williams and cruised to the end zone while the Arkansas bench erupted in joy.
“We turned things around and got momentum in our favor,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “But we did not finish.”
Mallett did and unofficially announced his entry in the Heisman Trophy race with the drive. He completed 21 of 33 for 380 yards with three touchdowns in the win. Childs caught three passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Joe Adams contributed six catches for 130 yards as well.
“It kind of seemed like all was lost there for a minute,” Bequette said. “But there was not one moment on the sidelines where we gave up or we thought they were going to win the game.”
Elation was evident as soon as Murray’s final pass fell to the turf in the end zone. Arkansas celebrated at midfield, then, on the way to the locker room, players rang the bell that travels with them to every road game.
It carried over into the locker room, too, where a phone call was placed to injured running back Dennis Johnson, who is out after suffering a bowel injury. Petrino said the Razorbacks dedicated the game to Johnson and he led them in what was described as an “emotional” cheer by telephone.
Earning its first road win since 2008 — and taking the first step toward its preseason goal — certainly wasn’t easy for the Razorbacks. Or perfect for that matter. But it didn’t matter to Arkansas.
“We won,” Robinson said. “We responded to negative situations. We came back. We fought hard. ... We’re going to celebrate this win.”