By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette was standing next to backup quarterback Tyler Wilson on the sideline Saturday, waiting for the offense’s next move.
It was fourth-and-3 from the LSU 39 in a one-point game. Conventional wisdom said punt the ball and pin LSU deep in its own territory. But Arkansas’ gameplan said playing it safe wasn’t going to send it to the Sugar Bowl.
"Tyler always knows the call just by watching the signalers. He said, ‘Watch this,’" Bequette said in the postgame interview room. "I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘I’m not going to say it. Just watch it.’"
Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett’s gutsy 39-yard touchdown pass to Joe Adams was indicative of 12th-ranked Razorbacks’ 31-23 win, a BCS-worthy performance in front of 55,808 in War Memorial Stadium.
It was one of many big plays Arkansas (10-2, 6-2 in SEC) made in a big game, ruining sixth-ranked LSU’s (10-2, 6-2) goal of capping off an 11-win regular season.
Mallett, running back Knile Davis, receiver Cobi Hamilton and a resilient defense led the charge in the high stakes game, helping the Razorbacks win 10 games in the regular season for just the second time since joining the SEC in 1992. And its reward just might be the opportunity to dance on Bourbon Street in January, celebrating the school’s first appearance in a BCS game.
Sugar Bowl president David Melius said earlier Saturday, barring any strange occurrence at the top of the BCS standings, the Arkansas-LSU season finale was a defacto playoff for the New Orleans-based bowl. So Arkansas’ at-large berth could be finalized next Saturday if Auburn can beat South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game.
"I’m exhausted," Petrino said, letting out a big sigh after it was over. "It was a heck of a game. It was a battle. Our guys just kept at it and made some big plays on offense and defense."
The Mallett-to-Adams pass was one of several key moments — or sequences — that helped Arkansas fight off the Tigers, who entered Saturday’s game still clinging to slim hopes of playing for a national championship.
Mallett didn’t register his most impressive game statistically, but threw 85- and 80-yard touchdown passes to Hamilton against an aggressive defense in the first half. The latter came with six seconds left in a 14-14 game. Instead of running out the clock, the Razorbacks took a shot and Hamilton made it pay off, sprinting to the end zone after two LSU defenders collided.
"Coach Petrino said we’re going to win this game," said Hamilton, who finished with 164 receiving yards and two touchdowns. "He’s going to throw it in the fire. He’s going to go after you. That’s what we did."
It gave Arkansas the lead for good, but wrapping up a win wasn’t easy. The Razorbacks needed several defensive stands in the second half after turnovers and poor special teams play gave LSU excellent field position. But the Tigers — who managed 71 of their 294 yards in the second half — couldn’t crack the end zone. LSU settled for two field goals in the third quarter and one late.
In between, Mallett connected with Adams on a play the Razorbacks installed after the LSU loss last season.
Petrino said the Tigers hurt Arkansas with a max blitz package in the 33-30 overtime loss and the Razorbacks didn’t want it to happen again. Adams beat LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu with a double move, looked over his shoulder and hauled in the game-breaking touchdown.
"I called (special teams coach John L.) Smith over and said, ‘Should we punt or go for it,’" Petrino said. "I worked for coach Smith a long time ago and we had a saying we didn’t come to paint. We came to win the game."
Arkansas wasn’t done. After forcing LSU to punt, the Razorbacks began a decisive and methodical march downfield led by a run game that powered to 144 yards.
In fact, Petrino called nine straight runs on the possession. Davis, who finished with 152 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries, teamed with power back Broderick Green to wear on the Tigers’ usually stingy front. The Hogs couldn’t cash in with a touchdown, but the 12-play, 88-yard drive ate 6:03 off the clock in the fourth quarter. And place kicker Zach Hocker’s 19-yard field goal gave the Razorbacks a 31-20 lead with 6:09 left.
"That was a great drive," said Mallett, who completed 13 of 23 passes for 320 yard with two touchdowns and two interceptions. "We want to punch it in at the end. But that six minutes we physically imposed our will on them."
LSU added a field goal — its third of the half — on the next possession to cut it to 31-23. The Razorbacks ran as much clock as possible, but LSU got the ball back at its own 6 with 49 seconds remaining. It didn’t matter.
Safety Andru Stewart sacked quarterback Jordan Jefferson on second down, linebacker Jerry Franklin fell on the ball at the 1 and Arkansas ran out the final seconds.
"I’m not happy," LSU coach Les Miles said. "It’s certainly not how it’s supposed to end for us."
Arkansas fans chanted "BCS, BCS" while the song "Pour Some Sugar on Me" blared on the speakers throughout the postgame scene in War Memorial Stadium.
Arkansas players celebrated on the field by hoisting the Golden Boot trophy, while Petrino hugged his family, coaching staff and athletics director Jeff Long as he walked up the tunnel into the locker room. In the meantime, representatives from the Sugar Bowl were busy snapping pictures of Arkansas’ jubilant players.
The Razorbacks haven’t locked up a berth in the Sugar Bowl, yet. In fact, they need some help from Auburn in the SEC Championship Game next weekend.
But it didn’t really matter Saturday night.
"We came down here to win," Bequette said. "That’s all we came down here to do. We didn’t want to worry about what would happen with other teams. It was all about us.
"We finished the deal. If things go the right way, and I hope they do, we’ll end up in a pretty good dang bowl."