MEMPHIS Arkansas’ offensive players were its headliners this season, but it was the Razorbacks’ no-name defense that got the Hogs a 20-17 victory over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday.
Arkansas, down 10-0 at halftime, didn’t even need to convert a first down to forge a third-quarter tie.
Interceptions by Jerry Franklin and Tramain Thomas set up or led directly to 10 points to hit the reset button on a game in which Conference USA champion East Carolina dictated the tempo.
Franklin’s interception and 31-yard return on the fifth snap of the third quarter - reminiscent of his momentum-turning interception and return on the third play of the third quarter at LSU - got the pro-Arkansas crowd heavily involved. Thomas’ 37-yard interception return for a score moments later got the Hogs rolling in what turned out to be their first bowl victory since 2003.
“That kind of turned the game, put us back in it,” said Franklin, who moved from his normal weakside linebacker spot to start in the middle for Wendel Davis, who was suspended along with safety Matt Harris.
Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson got a big game from Thomas, who took defensive player of the game honors filling in for Harris. Thomas had nine tackles, seven unassisted, and the interception for a touchdown.
“They had been throwing the bubble screen, and they have another play they throw off of that,” Robinson said. “I guessed right putting him in position to play the screen, and he executed the heck out of it.”
Arkansas’ 3-1 victory in the turnover margin against East Carolina shot the Razorbacks to sixth nationally with a plus-1.15 turnover margin. Arkansas was credited with 30 takeaways during the season.
Arkansas Coach Bobby Petrino wanted the Hogs to be aggressive risk-takers this season, and it led to more big-play scores for opposing offenses and more takeaways, both of which put quarterback Ryan Mallett and the Hogs’ offense back on the field.
Petrino might have to rethink his super-aggressive offensive mentality next season, especially in situational settings. Arkansas allowed East Carolina two shots at a game-winning field goal in the last 63 seconds because of the Razorbacks’ inability to burn much time off the clock late with the score tied at 17.
The Razorbacks struggled to find their offensive rhythm with Ryan Mallett throwing high, low and wide of his targets. Plus, the Razorbacks’ normally sure-handed receivers and backs were making atypical drops.
Greg Childs, Cobi Hamilton and D.J. Williams all had key drops in the first half, and in the second half backs Ronnie Wingo and Broderick Green failed to catch short passes that could have been broken for big gains or at least moved the chains.
The result: The Hogs were 0 for 13 on third-down conversions, dropping them to 54 of 162 (33 percent) for the season, a figure that ranks No. 104 nationally.
“We didn’t execute well on third down,” Petrino said. “We had a chance to make some catches and didn’t do it. We busted some assignments, which is not typical of us.”
But Petrino said East Carolina’s defensive front caused some of the problems.
“The pressure they put on you, they put a clock on you and don’t give you a lot of extra time,” Petrino said.
Mallett’s 15 of 36 passing for 202 yards and 1 touchdown was somehow good enough to win MVP honors, but it was not the kind of validating performance he was looking for to finish his sophomore season. Mallett shed no light on whether he plans to declare for the NFL Draft before the Jan. 15 deadline, but the neutral-field showing, following poor road performances this season, is sure to be scrutinized by NFL types.
The Razorbacks are No. 22 in total offense with 427.3 yards per game, a far cry from the No. 53 spot they occupied in 2008. But they also fell 12 spots in the total offense rankings in their final three games, from a high of No. 10 after a 56-20 victory over Troy.
Arkansas also came up short in a bid to break the school scoring record. The Hogs needed 38 points vs. East Carolina to break the 2007 team’s record of 485 points, but had to settle for 468 points, the second-most in school history, for an average of 36 points per game that ranks ninth in the nation.
Sports, Pages 17 on 01/04/2010
Print Headline: ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS FOOTBALL Quick-strike D can take bow