Tide escapes upset in SEC opener

Jason Galloway

Some things are better left unforgotten.

In the second half of Saturday’s game against No. 10 Arkansas (3-1, 1-1), it appeared the top-ranked Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0) had put the first half behind them. Now that Alabama has completed an improbable 24-20 comeback victory against the Razorbacks, however, head coach Nick Saban wants his players to dig up those horrific first-half memories again.

“I really don’t want the players to put it behind them,” he said. “I want them to remember what it’s like not to play the way you’re capable of playing. We need to learn from the experience we had today and try to improve as a football team.”

The trouble started in the very first minute of the game. The first play from scrimmage was a 31-yard pass from Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett to wide receiver Jarius Wright. The second play was a 43-yard touchdown completion from Mallett to an unbelievably wide open Ronnie Wingo Jr., and the Razorbacks took a 7-0 lead 50 seconds into the game.

“The wrong outside backer rushed,” Saban said, “and when you’re in 3-4, one guy blitzes and one guy drops. There was nobody on that side of the field. Things like that are basic, day one. [The defense] has to understand the importance of being disciplined to do [its] job, and sometimes young guys don’t understand that.

The Tide’s first offensive drive went two yards in the wrong direction and included an awful third-down screen pass that Arkansas nearly intercepted and walked into the end zone.

Junior running back Mark Ingram allowed Tide fans to exhale on Alabama’s next drive, however, breaking loose for a 54-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7 with 6:21 left in the first quarter.

“We always take pride in not letting the first guy tackle you,” Ingram said. “So, I gave him a stiff arm, I was stumbling a little bit, and another guy came, and I gave him a stiff arm, then tight-roped the sideline and got in. It was a great run.”

It was Alabama’s only score of the first half, and Arkansas continued to take advantage of an inexperienced Tide secondary. The Razorbacks added a field goal on their next drive, and after both teams exchanged interceptions inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, Arkansas scored a touchdown with 15 seconds left in the half on a Mallett quarterback sneak to go into the locker room with a shocking 17-7 advantage.

“There was a lot of tension [at halftime],” sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “It was real emotional in there. A lot of people were in their own mind, trying to get themselves right mentally, like I was. I was trying to get my mind right first half because first half I was kind of shaky.”

Shaky could have described about anybody in the Tide’s defensive backfield in the first half. Mallett already had 250 passing yards, and many of his completions were to wide open receivers.

Junior wide receiver Julio Jones said a number of players, including himself, Trent Richardson, Greg McElroy, Marcell Dareus and Ingram, conducted motivational talks to the entire team.

Someone’s must have worked. The second half was a slow and steady comeback.

Arkansas added a field goal early in the third, but Alabama responded with an eight-play, 74-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to 20-14. Richardson took a pass from McElroy in the flat 20 yards for the score with 44 seconds before the fourth quarter.

After an Arkansas three-and-out, Alabama matriculated the ball 66 yards on 16 plays before kicking a 36-yard field goal to make the Tide’s deficit 20-17 with 6:01 remaining. McElroy sustained a leg injury on the play before the field goal but did not miss any playing time.

“I’ve played with a lot of painful things, and this thing’s killing me,” he said. “In the next few days it will be pretty sore, but I’ve played with broken ribs before. I think I can handle this.”

Just more than a minute later, Robert Lester snatched his second interception of the game and returned it to the Razorbacks’ 12-yard line. A 1-yard Ingram plunge three plays later gave Alabama its first lead of the game with 3:18 remaining.

Kirkpatrick intercepted a pass on Arkansas’ next possession, a ball that he thought Mallett was trying to throw away.

“I just saw the ball floating and had to go get it,” Kirkpatrick said. “First half, [Mallett] was kind of picking at me. I’m not [used to that], but I’m glad he did. He did a great job, and I just had to overcome it, and I overcame it.”

A fourth-and-inches conversion by McElroy on a sneak with less than a minute left sealed the come-from-behind victory.

After giving up 301 total yards and 17 points to the Razorbacks in the first half, Alabama held the Hogs to just 120 yards and three points after the break.

“There ain’t no 30-minute games,” Jones said. “We knew it was a 60-minute game, so we had to come out here and play 60 minutes.”