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Alabama survives Arkansas thanks to physical brand of football

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Facing fourth-and-inches at their own 44-yard-line and needing to either gain one more first down to ice their comeback victory or punt the ball and give Arkansas a final chance with 54 seconds remaining, Alabama guard Barrett Jones and a couple of his fellow linemen made a plea to their head coach during the second of two straight timeouts.

"Coach," Jones said to two-time BCS champion Nick Saban, "Just trust us. We can get this one yard."

"OK," said Saban. "Let's do it."

They went for it. They got it, on quarterback Greg McElroy's sneak. They put the finishing touches on a 24-20 victory over No. 10 Arkansas the same way they won 17 straight games and a national championship before this: by running over their opponent.

"We like to give a lot of different [offensive] looks," said Jones, "but no matter the look, no matter where we're on the field, we just want to be physical."

McElroy may have gained the Tide's final two yards on the day, but the unmistakable embodiment of Alabama's physical brand of football was its star running back, Mark Ingram. After a first half in which Razorbacks quarterback Ryan Mallett threw for 250 yards and looked to be making his case for the Heisman, Ingram served a reminder of why he's already got a trophy on his mantle. Starting with a 54-yard first-quarter touchdown burst in which he viciously stiff-armed (in true trophy fashion) two defenders and tight-roped down the sideline the last 10 yards, the junior ran for 157 yards on 24 carries.

His backfield mate Trent Richardson did his own damage, amassing 85 yards on just eight touches. But when it came time for the dagger -- after Alabama, down 20-7 at one point, picked off Mallett to take over at the Arkansas 12-yard-line with 4:40 remaining -- there was little doubt who would be getting the ball. As they'd done much of the day, the Tide snapped directly to Ingram in the Wildcat the first two plays, gaining a combined 11 yards, then handed it to him at the goal line for the go-ahead touchdown.

Some two minutes later, after picking off Mallett yet again, the Tide handed off three consecutive times to Ingram -- who, lest we forget, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery the first week of the season and returned to game action for the first time just last week.

"Mark's a great player," said Saban in an inescapable understatement. "He did a great job in the second half of getting some tough yards."

Alabama needed every one of those yards, because it took nearly every one of the game's 60 minutes to fend off the Razorbacks. In the first of three straight meetings with SEC foes currently ranked in the top 15, the Tide showed their first signs of vulnerability. For much of the first three quarters, their defense looked every bit like a unit that replaced nine starters from last year's dominant squad, much to the consternation of their perfectionist coach.

"Our inexperience in adjusting to [Arkansas'] motion and formations -- all the things we practiced -- we made mistakes," said Saban. "I'm talking about the most basic things. There's so many young guys playing."

On Arkansas' very first offensive play, Mallett hit wide-open receiver Jarius Wright for a 31-yard gain -- the result, Saban said, of a linebacker who was supposed to stay back in coverage instead rushing the quarterback. Mallett followed that with a 43-yard touchdown on the very next play to uncovered tailback Ronnie Wingo Jr. on a catch-and-run, sending the Razorback Stadium-record crowd of 76,808 into a tizzy.

Mallett completed throws of 43 and 31 yards on another drive later in the second quarter, and there's no telling how crazy the place might have gotten had 'Bama not snuffed out that series on safety Robert Lester's interception in the end zone. It was a rare blemish on Mallett's otherwise splendid 15-of-22, 250-yard first half, but it would prove an ominous precursor to the game's eventual outcome.

His counterpart, McElroy, had his own issue with interceptions, throwing picks on consecutive first-half possessions that helped Arkansas jump to a 17-7 lead -- and gain 301 yards -- before halftime.

To the Tide, however, it felt no different than close clashes last season with LSU and Auburn. Arkansas extended its lead to 20-7 with 5:04 left in the third quarter, but that series proved a turning point for 'Bama's defense. After Mallett and the Hogs drove from their own 16 down to the Tide's 20-yard-line, Mark Barron sacked Mallett on second down, then Dre Kirkpatrick stuffed Wingo for a five-yard loss on a third-down screen pass, forcing Arkansas to settle from the field goal.

"We were much more aggressive [in the second half]," said Saban. "We were so afraid to make mistakes in the first half that we got so vanilla. But that was the gameplan, to go out and be aggressive."

It was also the game plan to run the ball down Arkansas' throat, and Alabama began to do so in earnest shortly thereafter. Ingram or Richardson touched the ball on six of the eight plays on the subsequent drive, which was capped by Richardson's 20-yard catch-and-run screen pass for a touchdown that cut it to 20-14.

"It's an offensive lineman's dream," said Jones, "to block for two unbelievable guys like that."

McElroy, shaking off his first-half miscues, contributed to the cause as well, completing 6-of-9 throws for 67 yards on a 16-play, 66-yard fourth-quarter drive that brought the Tide within three. While the final score may have been too close for comfort for Tide fans, this played out pretty much as one might have figured before the season -- with 'Bama's loaded, veteran offense proving to be a steadier hand than its younger, vulnerable defense.

But the defense did come through with two huge stops (Lester's and Kirkpatrick's fourth-quarter interceptions) and held the Razorbacks to just 120 yards in the second half, which could serve as a confidence-booster heading into next week's much-anticipated date with Florida.

"I take away [from the game] a tale of two cities," said Saban. "Great job by our guys in the second half ... That [first] half was really not a good half of football, and I really don't want the players to put it behind them. I want them to remember what it's like to not play the way you're capable of playing."

Alabama is the rare team that could walk into an atmosphere like this one and come away victorious despite a half like that. The Tide will face more tests in the coming weeks (though no quarterback nearly as dangerous as Mallett), and they'll have to lean once again on their experience, maturity and physicality.

Though having the reigning Heisman Trophy winner back in prime form doesn't hurt, either.

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