MEMPHIS Arkansas survived two potential game-winning field goals from East Carolina in the final 63 seconds, plus another in overtime, then got its own winning kick from Alex Tejada to make Liberty Bowl history Saturday.
The Razorbacks won the first overtime game in the Liberty Bowl’s 51 years, earning a 20-17 victory on Tejada’s 37-yard field goal. Arkansas also captured its first postseason victory at the Liberty Bowl in four tries on a frigid evening before a crowd of 62,742, the second-largest in the bowl’s history.
Arkansas (8-5) struggled offensively and had trouble slowing the ball-control and short-passing game of East Carolina (9-5), which outgained the Hogs 393-283 in total offense. But the Razorbacks’ Jerry Franklin and Tramain Thomas intercepted two third-quarter passes to deliver 10 points, including Thomas’ 37-yard return for a touchdown, and Tejada made the first game-winning kick of his career.
“It was a hard, hard game, and we just kept battling,” Arkansas Coach Bobby Petrino said. “I think the biggest turnaround was in the third quarter, when our defense got the two interceptions and basically gave us 10 points and put us right in the game.”
Oddly, Arkansas’ last loss in the Liberty Bowl was also a 20-17 decision on a field goal by Georgia’s John Kasay on the final play of the 1987 game. This time, East Carolina’s Ben Hartman missed a 39-yard field-goal attempt with 1:03 left, misfired from 39 yards out on the final play of regulation, then missed again from 35 yards in overtime.
Tejada, whose missed 36-yard field-goal attempt was the final play of Arkansas’ 33-30 overtime loss at LSU in its last regular-season game, gained a large measure of redemption. The junior out of Springdale sprinted 80 yards to the north end zone after his game-winning kick, chased all the way by jubilant teammates, and began hammering his chest with his fist.
“You know, it’s pretty sweet,” Tejada said. “LSU left a bitter taste in my mouth.”
Arkansas extended the SEC’s winning streak over Conference USA to four games in the Liberty Bowl and won its first bowl game under Petrino, who’s in his second season with the Razorbacks. The Hogs also won just their third bowl game since the 1985 Holiday Bowl and improved their postseason record to 12-22-3.
In another coincidence, Franklin and Thomas were starting at positions vacated by middle linebacker Wendel Davis and safety Matt Harris, who were suspended for curfew violations on Thursday.
Asked if he felt the Razorbacks outplayed East Carolina, Petrino bristled.
“We won the football game, and we beat them,” Petrino said. “That’s what it’s all about. I’m not sure who outplayed who, but we won the game.”
Hartman, who became East Carolina’s leading scorer in the game, clanked his first 39-yarder off the left upright, missed wide right on the last play of regulation, then went wide left in overtime.
“When you look at it, it comes down to a couple of turnovers there to start the third quarter and then ... three missed field goals,” East Carolina Coach Skip Holtz said. “It’s just unfortunate. It’s hard. It’s painful.”
Arkansas could not get its offense clicking in the first half or fourth quarter, and had an 0-for-13 performanceon third-down conversions.
“When we start the season next year, no one is going to really remember that we were 0 for 13 in third downs,” said Garrick McGee, who coordinated his first game on offense for the Razorbacks. “They’re going to know we finished the season with eight wins, and our seniors got out of here with a win, which was really important to us.”
Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett completed 15 of 36 passes for 202 yards and 1 touchdown but was voted MVP by the media. Mallett was not sharp, and his receivers and backs dropped several passes to hurt his completion percentage even more.
Mallett, who is considering declaring early for the NFL Draft, said he’d celebrate this victory with his teammates and announce his decision later.
“We really didn’t get into a rhythm,” said Mallett, who praised Franklin and Thomas for sparking Arkansas’ comeback from a 10-0 deficit with third-quarter interceptions.
“The defense was able to get us some points, and it really turned the game around,” Mallett said.
Arkansas gave up 151 rushing yards to East Carolina’s Dominique Lindsay and was dominated in time of possession, 37:55 to 22:05, but the Razorbacks won the turnover battle 3-1 with the big defensive plays in the third quarter.
“They were huge,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said. “Talk about two perfect plays being executed. Jerry was exactly where he needed to be, and Tramain’s was well done. They had been throwing the bubble screen, so we kind of anticipated off the bubble what they were going to do with it.”
Franklin’s interception and 31-yard return set up Tejada’s 25-yard field goal at the 10:41 mark to draw the Razorbacks within 10-3. Then Thomas jumped a route and brought his interception back 37 yards to tie the game.
East Carolina drove 54 yards to retake the lead on Patrick Pinkney’s 13-yard slant-route touchdown pass to Dwayne Harris immediately after Thomas’ interception.
Then the Arkansas offense finally got going. Broderick Green, the Hogs’ leading rusher, broke off a 19-yard run to the East Carolina 41. On the next play, Mallett threw deep for Jarius Wright, who ran past safety Van Eskridge down a seam, and connected for the 41-yard game-tying score.
Tejada missed wide right on a 43-yard field-goal attempt with 10:17 remaining that would have broken the tie.
East Carolina dominated the end of the game behind Lindsay’s hard running. After Hartman banged the upright and missed with 1:03 left, the Razorbacks could not move the ball nor run much time off the clock. Punter Dylan Breeding’s 28-yard punt put East Carolina in operation at the 50, and Pinkney led the Pirates 28 yards to the 22, but Hartman missed again, allowing the Hogs to win itin overtime.
“They did a good job, almost running out the clock ... and we were fortunate [Hartman] didn’t make them,” Petrino said.
Sports, Pages 27 on 01/03/2010
Print Headline: LIBERTY BOWL Kicking the habit