Two words describe the University of Alabama's game at Arkansas better than any other: Growing pains.
Saturday's 24-20 victory may have been a coming of age game for the defense in particular, with the young revamped secondary facing a stern test during its first Southeastern Conference game and Arkansas fans foaming at the, err, snout.
But in addition to the two sophomores, true freshman and junior college transfer who were put to the test by Bobby Petrino's passing attack, consider the linebackers as well. Sophomore Nico Johnson was making his first start of the season at weakside, junior Jerrell Harris was in a new spot at strongside and junior Courtney Upshaw returned from an ankle injury at Jack to make his third career start.
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That's a lot of new blood, without a single senior starter.
"Most of the guys on offense have been in these games before," Coach Nick Saban said. "Most of the guys on defense have not."
The lack of continuity and experience were exposed early, when Alabama made numerous costly mistakes that put the No. 1 Crimson Tide in a 17-7 hole. Even the first play was a mess, a 31-yard crossing reception followed by a 43-yard touchdown.
"Our inexperience in adjusting, to motions and formations, all things we practiced, not something that's new, but still in the heat of the battle we make mistakes," Saban continued. "I'm talking about the most basic things. We just need to get better.
"Like the long pass to start the game, the wrong outside backer rushed. When you're in a 3-4 one guy rushes and one guy drops back. There's nobody on that side of the field, in the flat, he's rushing. Things like that."
However, as Alabama got more aggressive, it had more success, and increasingly challenged quarterback Ryan Mallett as the game progressed. For example, the average third down in the first half Arkansas needed 6.5 yards for the conversion, while in the second half when the Razorbacks were shut out it was 11.5.
"We just couldn't find a way to win in the fourth quarter," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "We had the opportunity and just couldn't get it done."
That was due to another word, which Alabama demonstrated and No. 10 Arkansas did not, poise.
Here are the awards.
Player of the game: Junior running back Mark Ingram showed why he has a Heisman Trophy while others will only have hype. He had 157 rushing yards on 24 carries and two rushing touchdowns, to go with two receptions for 27 yards.
Play of the game: Ingram's 54-yard touchdown not only quickly answered an early score, but was one of most impressive carries you'll ever see. Sophomore guard Barrett Jones had the key block with redshirt freshman tackle D.J. Fluker pulling into the hole. He stiff-armed safety Tramain Thomas and shook off cornerback Ramon Broadway's attempt at a tackle while keeping his balance and staying in bound until reaching the end zone. Incidentally, it's the longest play Arkansas has given up this season.
Statistic of the game: When Alabama started going after Mallett he became a different quarterback. At the time of junior safety Mark Barron's sack he had completed 10 straight passes and was 20-of-27 (74 percent) for 318 yards and one interception. Afterward, he was 5-of-11 (45 percent) with two interceptions (two drops) and just 39 passing yards.
Hit of the game: Johnson hit junior wide receiver Greg Childs so hard that it sent the ball flying for a incompletion (and potential interception). Honorable mention goes to true freshman DeMarcus Milliner on the hard tackle of Maudrecus Humphrey on Alabama's final kickoff.
Did you notice? Junior defensive end Marcell Dareus appeared to sustain a sprained left ankle just before the half, but he was limping much worse after taking chop block to the back of his leg by guard Wayne Grayson on a screen pass.
Here are 10 other things of note from Saturday's game:
Who was thrown at: Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatick's game was kind of symbolic of the whole team. Arkansas threw six times his direction during the first half, completing four for 97 yards including the 31-yard terrific sideline reception by Childs when he landed awkwardly. Only two balls went his way in the second half, both completed but for just 1 yard. His biggest mistake was on a play-action when he slipped on a double-move to leave Jarius Wright open for a 43-yard reception. He came off his coverage to make the final interception. Milliner was playing man when everyone else was in zone on the opening touchdown, and the safeties were trying to get his attention just before the snap. Give Arkansas credit for some impressive play-calling, like when it isolated running back Broderick Green (6-foot-2, 248 pounds) on Will Lowery for a 13-yard gain, and the 18-yard completion thrown right over charging sophomore defensive end Damion Square.
Ingram's day: If there was a stigma attached to Ingram last season it was that he nearly never broke any big plays, at least until his 70-yard touchdown run at Mississippi State. Otherwise, his longest score was 40 yards against Chattanooga, and his longest non-scoring play was 45 yards. His 54-yard touchdown was his third play longer than 45 yards (he had carries of 50 and 48 yards at Duke), in just his first 12 carries of the season. He took 24 handoffs Saturday, five more than his average last year, and for the season is averaging 9.3 yards per carry. Ingram was credited by ESPN with 80 yards after contact on his 157 rushing yards (Note: his receptions were apparently not considered), which would give him 147 for the season. Also, the 54-yard gain was more than his entire game against Arkansas last year (50). Alabama didn't seem to favor a direction to run, but went left all three times to score the final touchdown.
Greg McElroy's day: His worst throw wasn't either interception, but the first attempt on a screen to junior Marquis Maze that should have been a pick-six for the Razorbacks. The senior quarterback responded by completing his next eight passes. If there's one cause for concern it's that he was holding the ball a little too long at times, but after the picks he completed 9 of 13 attempts, with most of the misses downfield. He was 6-of-8 for 60 yards with one interception on third down, converting five, and was 4-of-8 in the red zone with one touchdown and one interception. His thigh injury was on the last sack and may have been from landing on another defensive player. McElroy went from leading the nation in passer efficiency to seventh (178.62), and is second in the SEC to Auburn's Cam Newton.
The receiving corps: Seven different players caught passes, which was the same number as Arkansas, but Alabama's biggest gain in the air was just 20 yards. It had two such completions, both to running backs. The Tide liked the matchup of Jones on 5-9 cornerback Ramon Broadway, but couldn't exploit it except for a pass-interference penalty. Hanks had the key block on his 19-yard bubble screen. Tide receivers had 117 yards after the catch. For the first time this season, Alabama didn't have a dropped pass.
Explosive plays: Alabama didn't have any big plays in the air, while Arkansas was likewise on the ground. Saban defines a big gain as a run of 16 yards or more or a pass of 21 yards or more, and an explosive play a run of 13 yards or more or a pass of 17 yards or more. Alabama had just three big plays -- Ingram's 54-yard touchdown and 19-carry and sophomore Trent Richardson's 53-yard run in the final seconds of the first half -- and seven explosive plays. In comparison, Arkansas had four big plays and nine explosive plays. Strangely enough, both teams finished with exactly 421 total yards, and McElroy had the same number of passing yards in each half, 97.
Turnovers: Sophomore free safety Robert Lester's knack to be in the right place at the right time has been uncanny and consequently he's tied for second nationally with four interceptions. Milliner was the primary defender on the pass into the end zone, but Lester knew Mallett liked the route and sat on it for the pick. The second interception was even easier on an overthrown ball with DeQuan Menzie in coverage. Mallett can't blame anyone but himself for the third interception, when he appeared to be throwing the ball away on third-and-11, but the Arkansas defense had just endured a 16-play drive and was clearly wilting. McElroy's two picks, tying his career high, came near the end of the first half and helped Arkansas scored a last-minute touchdown. On the first he was supposed to hit junior Darius Hanks on a fade in the corner of the end zone, but was pressured and instead tried to force the ball to sophomore tight end Michael Williams over the middle. The second was sort of a trick play with Hanks again the intended receiver on a wheel route but the defender didn't buy the pump-fake made a great play. Neither team lost a fumble, although Upshaw forced one that bounced of Barron before Arkansas recovered.
The fourth quarter: Pick your favorite statistic to demonstrate how Alabama dominated when the game was on the line. Arkansas executed just 11 plays, with four completions for 44 yards, four rushing yards and just three first downs (one via penalty). It had more turnovers, two, than converted third downs or points, zero. In comparison, Alabama had the ball for 11:25, accumulated 94 total yards and scored 10 points to win the game. For the season, Alabama has outscored opponents 31-3 in the fourth quarter.
Wildcat: Although Alabama's primary use of the wildcat was for short-yardage gains, Ingram's 19-yard run around the right end, with senior tight end Preston Dial providing a terrific lead block, was the Tide's longest play in the wildcat this season. The 20 snaps out of the formation have resulted in 108 yards, all rushing. Ingram took eight handoffs out of the wildcat, nine from the pistol, three from shotgun and four when the quarterback was under center. Richardson only took eight handoffs, with his two biggest gains, 53 and 10, out of shotgun.
Richardson special: Arkansas linebacker Jerry Fanklin might have saved a touchdown when he took the correct angle on Richardson's 53-yard run. However, the sophomore still finished with 227 all-purpose yards, with 117 on four kick returns. His averages of 35.25 return yards and 191.00 all-purpose yards both rank fifth in the nation. Richardson was also in on two tackles in kick coverage. Although all of the return specialists were replaced from last year there has yet to be a major setback, while freshman Cody Mandell isn't listed among the NCAA leaders because he doesn't have enough punts to qualify (3.6 average minimum). Senior Chavis Williams was back on the kick-coverage unit along with Milliner.
Penalties: Alabama was flagged eight times for 47 yards for a face mask (Johnson), offside (Dareus), two false starts (Fluker and Dial), an inexcusable substitution infraction following a time out, an illegal block (Hanks), a late hit (Lester), holding (Fluker) and pass interference (Lowery). The pass-interference penalty was a bad call and Hanks appeared to hit his man in the shoulder, which isn't illegal. Alabama caught a break when Menzie wasn't flagged for pass-interference on the play junior nose guard Nick Gentry hit Mallott, causing him to wince. Although officials reviewed the spot of the ball to give Arkansas a first down, they didn't give the same consideration to Alabama on a Williams reception, and should have flagged the Razorbacks for roughing the kicker when a player dove into Jeremy Shelley on an extra-point attempt.