Mark Ingram, Bama stiff-arm Arkansas
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- At kickoff Saturday, there was one prime Heisman Trophy candidate in Razorback Stadium. His name was Ryan Mallett.
At game's end Saturday, there still was one prime Heisman Trophy candidate in Razorback Stadium. His name was Mark Ingram.
Despite being the reigning Heisman winner and playing for the No. 1 team in America, Ingram had slipped off radar. He'd been hurt for the Crimson Tide's first two games, and when studly backup Trent Richardson bulldozed San Jose State and Penn State in his absence, some voters might have suspected that any decent running back could gain 100 yards behind Bama's bruising offensive line.
Even when Ingram returned last week and ran for 151 yards on a silly nine carries, most folks shrugged. The opponent, after all, was Duke, which is like picking on small children. Ingram managed only four fifth-place votes in the most recent ESPN.com Heisman poll, ranking a distant sixth overall.
Mallett, meanwhile, was third in the same poll after some heroics to beat Georgia the week before. The huge junior with the big arm came into this game leading the nation in passing yards and ranking fifth in efficiency.
And Mallett was a relatively fresh face, whereas Ingram was old news. There is a flavor-of-the-week quality to the Heisman watch, and Mallett joined Denard Robinson in trendy territory.
But when all was said and done here, the new boss is the same as the old boss. Ingram came into a charged atmosphere, with a record crowd of 76,808 pickled Pig people roaring for the Razorbacks, and ripped the home team for 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
He was brilliant early -- a 54-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was a scintillating blend of speed, strength and balance. And he was clutch late -- playing quarterback in the Wildcat formation several times, pounding out the tough yards and scoring the winning touchdown with 3 minutes, 18 seconds to play.
"Mark's a great player, and he sure did a great job in the second half of making some tough yards," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He made some tough yards at the end when we needed to take the air out of it. Mark is really a great competitor."
Mallett, meanwhile, was great early and highly suspect late.
Armed with a splendid game plan from coach Bobby Petrino, Mallett led a two-play, 74-yard scoring drive to open the game and staked the Razorbacks to a 20-7 lead with 20 minutes to play. At that point Mallett had thrown for 313 yards, and you could almost feel the hype machine kicking into high gear.
Then the going got tough. And the throws got careless. Arkansas' final two drives of the game ended on Mallett interceptions.
Clinging to a 20-17 lead and leaking momentum, Mallett sailed a pass into two-deep coverage that was picked off by safety Robert Lester at the Hogs' 37 and returned to the 12. After Ingram scored the go-ahead touchdown, Mallett had a hero opportunity that ended in disaster. He drove Arkansas to midfield but then badly underthrew what appeared to be a throw-away pass and had it picked with 1:48 left.
Combine those two with a ghastly interception in the end zone in the first half, and you have a trilogy of errors that were key factors in a come-from-ahead loss. That's not the stuff of Heisman winners.
"We started off really good," Mallett said. "We just came out in the second half and forgot to finish. We should've finished that game out and had a win right now."
As the past two seasons have shown, Alabama has a team of finishers. And it also had the coolest quarterback in the fourth quarter.
Greg McElroy remains unbeaten as a college starter largely because he made his mistakes early, then made up for them late. McElroy threw a couple of interceptions of his own in the first half, but he made some clutch third-down throws in the fourth quarter to enable the Tide's comeback.
"He made the plays when he had to have them," Saban said.
But make no mistake, the star of the Tide is No. 22.
Of all the great runs he made last year, none was better than that long TD dash Saturday. Ingram burst up the gut, shifted to the right sideline and defeated two tacklers on the way to the end zone. The last Hog with a shot at him was cornerback Ramon Broadway, but he got a face-full of stiff-arm. Then, despite his momentum hurtling him toward the sideline, Ingram somehow kept his balance and found the end zone.
"It was a great run," Ingram said, and it's not bragging when you're telling the truth. "It was blocked perfectly. We always take pride in not letting the first guy tackle us."
In the fourth quarter, Ingram took direct snaps in the Wildcat formation six times and hammered out key yards as the Tide played keep-away from the Hogs. And when the yards absolutely, positively have to be gained, Ingram wants to be in that quarterback position.
"I love it," he said. "Great players, great teams thrive on situations like that."
Ingram cited Michael Jordan and Barry Sanders as players who did their best work in those circumstances. If he keeps playing like this, he'll have a chance to earn his own place in select athletic company -- namely, alongside Archie Griffin as the only two-time winners of the Heisman Trophy.
At the very least, he emerged Saturday as the leading Heisman candidate in Razorback Stadium and in the SEC.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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