Commentary

Hogs survive rally to set up showdown

Updated: September 18, 2010, 6:04 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Ga. -- After blowing a 14-point lead to Georgia in the fourth quarter Saturday, Arkansas got the football back with the score tied at 24 and 47 seconds to play.

In the huddle, wide receiver Greg Childs looked at quarterback Ryan Mallett and knew the Razorbacks were going to win.

"Ryan is a big-time player and I expect him to make big-time plays when we need them the most," Childs said. "I expect him to make big-time plays. I expect him to make big-time throws."

Mallett delivered three big-time throws on Arkansas' final possession, and the No. 12 Razorbacks walked away with a 31-24 victory over Georgia in front of a sold-out crowd of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium.

[+] Enlarge Ryan Mallett
Dale Zanine/US PresswireRyan Mallett silenced critics who questioned his ability to win big road games.

Arkansas has a 3-0 record heading into next week's showdown against No. 1 Alabama at Razorback Stadium. And after finally getting a marquee road victory in coach Bobby Petrino's third season, the Razorbacks will have plenty of momentum when they face the defending BCS national champions at home.

"It takes us to next week," Petrino said. "We've got a good win. One of our goals before the season was to beat Georgia. I think we learned a lot. I think our guys understand it is about toughness and grinding it out and sticking together."

The Razorbacks also learned a lot about their quarterback. Mallett, a junior from Texarkana, Ark., put up some eye-popping numbers last season, his first in Petrino's pass-happy offense after transferring from Michigan.

But Mallett and the Razorbacks struggled on the road last season, losing each of their road games at Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU. Mallett threw only four of his 30 touchdown passes and completed less than 40 percent of his passes in true road games.

Late in the fourth quarter at Georgia, it looked like the Hogs might again come up empty on the road. After taking a 24-10 lead late in the third quarter, Arkansas' offense unraveled and picked up only one first down in its next three possessions.

Georgia's offense, which has struggled to score without suspended receiver A.J. Green, finally came to life. Redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray threw a 10-yard touchdown to Tavarres King to make it 24-17 with 7:52 to play, and then Washaun Ealey scored on a 3-yard run to tie the score at 24 with 3:55 left.

The Bulldogs had the ball back with less than a minute to play, but Hogs defensive end Jake Bequette sacked Murray on third-and-4 at midfield to force a punt.

Arkansas took over at its 27-yard line with 47 seconds left, and Mallett needed only three plays to produce the first game-winning drive of his career.

Mallett fired an 18-yard pass to tight end D.J. Williams on first down, and then hit Williams with a 15-yarder to move to Georgia's 40.

With 21 seconds to go, Petrino called a variation of the same play he called on first and second downs. Childs ran a route down the left sideline, and Williams ran an out route. If Georgia's cornerback broke to cover Williams, Mallett was supposed to throw the ball to Childs, or vice versa.

[+] EnlargeGreg Childs
Paul Abell/US PresswireGreg Childs' last-minute TD secured the win for the Hogs.

When the Georgia cornerback ran toward Williams, Mallett fired a pass to Childs down the left sideline. Childs caught the pass and slipped through safety Shawn Williams' diving tackle attempt, before running 40 yards for the winning touchdown with 15 seconds to play.

"I knew they were in Cover 2," Childs said. "I had the route down the sideline and D.J. was the out route. The cornerback wanted to stop D.J. from catching the ball, so he came off me and left a gap. I knew it was going to be me and the safety and if he missed, it was over."

The doubts about Mallett's ability to lead the Razorbacks to big victories and road wins are over, too. He completed 21 of 33 passes for 380 yards and three touchdowns.

"This is a really surreal feeling," Mallett said. "It's something I've never experienced before. This has got to be one of the greatest moments I've felt since I've played the game of football. It so rarely comes down to the wire like this. It's sometimes gone the other way for us, but now I know how it feels to get the win."

The Bulldogs find themselves in unfamiliar territory, too. They lost their first two SEC games for the first time in coach Mark Richt's 10 seasons, after losing at South Carolina 17-6 last week. Green, who was suspended four games by the NCAA for selling his 2009 Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000, will also miss next week's SEC game at Mississippi State.

"We got better today, but we just didn't finish," Richt said. "We got back into it, the crowd got into it. We had all we could hope for with time offensively, but we didn't get any points on the board. We had a chance to stop them, but we didn't. We punted them down and they had a long way to go, but they got it done and we didn't."

It was an important game for both programs. Georgia was trying to salvage its spiraling season. The Razorbacks were trying to show they've improved enough to challenge Alabama in the SEC West.

Blowing a fourth-quarter lead to Georgia would have raised many of the same doubts of a year ago. The Razorbacks would have looked more like the '09 Ole Miss team than a team ready to stand toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide.

"That was last year," Mallett said. "This team is more mature and understands what it takes to win on the road."

But Arkansas' ultimate test comes Saturday, when the Hogs get their much-anticipated game against the Crimson Tide.

"We said in the preseason if you go out and win at Georgia, we really get to make it a big game back in Fayetteville," Petrino said.

After Saturday's thrilling victory, Arkansas' home game against Alabama next week will be the biggest the Hogs have played in a long, long time.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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