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Ryan Mallett has turned the corner, but has Razorbacks' defense?


Ryan Mallett did what quarterbacks are supposed to do. Asked about his Heisman moment -- a 40-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left to beat Georgia last Saturday -- Mallett properly credited his receiver, Greg Childs, for the catch and a big-time move to get free and into the end zone.

"When you have guys like that," Mallett said, "It's a pretty comfortable feeling sitting back there in the pocket."

Mallett did not, however, credit the unit most responsible for the opportunity to make a dramatic mark. For a moment, let's all thank the Arkansas defense. And sorry, but we're not talking about Jake Bequette's third-down sack in the final minute.

Without the defense, the Hogs wouldn't be hosting their biggest home game in recent memory -- no tickets to be found for the date with top-ranked Alabama -- and maybe their biggest game anywhere in a very long time. But without the defense, Mallett also wouldn't have rocketed toward the top of all of those Heisman watch lists.

If the 10th-ranked Razorbacks knock off the Crimson Tide, they'll move into serious contention for their first national championship since 1964. The big side plot, of course, is reigning Heisman winner Mark Ingram (and his backup, Trent Richardson) against Mallett, who looks like a serious threat to win the award in 2010. And he should be. He's a prototypical NFL quarterback with a bazooka arm, and last week at Georgia, he answered some nagging questions:

How would he play on the road? Could he do it when it mattered? Was he clutch?

If you watched Mallett cover 73 yards in three plays and 32 seconds, you know the answer. So does the competition.

"Ryan Mallett is certainly if not the best, one of the best quarterbacks in the country," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

But the biggest question concerning Arkansas remains unanswered: Is the defense good enough to play sidekick to Mallett's superhero? Because the Hogs' tackling will impact Mallett's Heisman status, and the Razorbacks' championship aspirations, as much as Mallett's arm.

Last Saturday sent a mixed message. It was a huge win. When Arkansas led by two touchdowns heading into the fourth quarter, I received text messages from two national college football writers -- you would recognize their names (Hi, Stew!) -- who wanted to know the best way to get to Fayetteville. The obvious lesson was that Arkansas has not been a destination for big-time college football in a long while. This is the first matchup of top 10 teams at Razorback Stadium since 1979, when some guy named Lou Holtz was coaching the Hogs while wearing checkered pants that looked like a picnic tablecloth.

I passed along the information (the airport is Northwest Arkansas Regional, or XNA, if you were wondering), and some restaurant recommendations, as well. And one more bit of advice:

Wait a few minutes, because Arkansas' defense still has a say in this.

When Mallett's 22-yard TD pass to running back Ronnie Wingo with eight seconds left in the third quarter gave Arkansas a 24-10 lead, things looked pretty good -- and so did the defense against the mediocre Bulldogs, who were playing with an inexperienced quarterback and without suspended receiver A.J. Green.

But Georgia owned the next 14 minutes, which included touchdown drives of 62 and 52 yards to tie the game. To its credit, Arkansas stiffened, sacking quarterback Aaron Murray twice on Georgia's final possession, denying the Bulldogs a chance to take the lead. The Hogs finished with six sacks, which is impressive anytime, against anyone.

But for most of the quarter, the defense looked like the shaky unit that limited the Hogs' potential in 2009, with missed tackles, blown coverages and generally soft play.

You want to know why Alabama is favored by a touchdown over a top 10 team on the road? Respect for Saban's talented squad, certainly. But also Arkansas' defense.

A year ago, Arkansas ranked 12th -- dead last -- in the SEC in total defense (89th nationally). Contrast that with the Hogs' current rankings: No. 2 in the SEC and 10th nationally (allowing 255.67 yards per game). Looks good, but considering the competition (before Georgia, Arkansas whipped Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe), it's hard to discern much meaning.

Before playing the Bulldogs, Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson told reporters the Hogs were headed "into 'man country,'" and for three quarters, things seemed fine. But is Georgia's sudden fourth-quarter surge telling? The Bulldogs produced 222 of their total 392 yards, erased Arkansas' comfortable lead and almost snuffed out this week's showdown. Only Mallett's highlights kept the national media searching for flights into the Ozarks.

The Hogs bristle when you suggest, ever so gently, that there still might be defensive deficiencies.

"We're better than we were a year ago," coach Bobby Petrino said.

"I think we've got a great defense," Mallett said. "They're really flying to the football. (When you're) watching film, there are 10 or 11 guys in the frame before the film cuts off. They're running to the ball. ... They've grown just as well as the offense has grown."

We'll see. Mallett certainly has grown.

Even as he was shattering school records last season as a sophomore, when he threw for 3,624 yards and 30 touchdowns (with seven interceptions), he struggled away from home (Arkansas was 0-4 on the road), with a huge disparity in production, completing just 39 percent of his passes. In a 35-7 loss at Alabama, Mallett was 12-of-35. The Tide won 35-7.

Ever since, Mallett and his teammates have used that loss as motivation. They claim they didn't believe they could beat the Tide, and they point to a better performance in a close loss at Florida a few weeks later as evidence they had turned the corner.

"We grew up as a football team," Petrino said.

"Last year was a different story," Mallett said. "That was a different team."

A different quarterback, for sure. We saw it last Saturday. When the Razorbacks got the ball back with 47 seconds left, Petrino played for the win, not for overtime, and it paid off.

Mallett hit tight end D.J. Williams for 18 yards, and then again for 15 more, and then he found Childs open down the left sideline between two defensive backs. A quick move inside, and the receiver was headed for the end zone, the Hogs were headed home with an important win and Mallett was headed to the top of everyone's Heisman watches.

"It was probably," the junior quarterback said after the game, "one of the greatest moments I've had since I've been playing football."

It was fantastic stuff, the reason we all love college football, and it set up this week's slightly surprising showdown, and the possibility for more heroics from an emerging star.

Enjoy Mallett vs. Ingram (and Richardson, and Greg McElroy). Maybe we'll see a Heisman-defining type of performance from the home-state hero, the kid who grew up dreaming of playing for the Razorbacks, and now dreams of taking them big places.

But will it matter? You want to know if Mallett can win the Heisman? If Arkansas is a serious SEC or BCS contender?

Answer this question: Can his teammates tackle?