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September 16, 2007

Alabama takes thriller from No. 16 Arkansas

Box score

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - They stood on opposite sidelines of Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, yet Alabama coach Nick Saban and Arkansas' Houston Nutt are on polar opposite ends of the bizarro college football world.

Nutt is a native Arkansan who dearly loves the school he once attended and coaches. He has guided the Razorbacks to three SEC Western Division championships, including last year's division title.

Saban was lured to Tuscaloosa by a $4 million annual salary, and before this weekend had led the Crimson Tide to exactly two victories - over Western Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Yet Saban is revered by his fan base, while Nutt is reviled by a large segment of his. Saturday night's thrilling 41-38 Crimson Tide victory wasn't ensured until Matt Caddell pulled down John Parker Wilson's arching 4-yard touchdown pass in the back on the end zone with eight seconds remaining. However, the outcome won't change how either coach is perceived.

"We always talk about playing 60 minutes, and when we score a touchdown with eight seconds left to win a game, it's an easy way to reinforce a point," Saban said. "It was a tremendous victory for the University of Alabama, for our players, for our fans."

Those fans, many who wear T-shirts that read "Never Fear, Saban is Here," love him so much you'd swear Saban wears a houndstooth hat. One jubilant fan even screamed from the bleachers to "give that man a raise," as if $32 million over eight years isn't enough in a state where gasoline can be purchased for $2.54 a gallon.

The cliché says a football team reflects the personality of its coach, and that certainly seemed to fit. Saban's influence already is plainly obvious. Last season under Mike Shula, the Crimson Tide struggled to run the football. They routinely faded in close games. They played soft.

Against Arkansas, the Tide showed the disposition of a copperhead for most of three quarters and grit when it mattered most.

Alabama appeared tough, focused and resourceful - just like Saban. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks endured one chaotic episode after another, much as Nutt did in a tumultuous offseason in which he was accused of everything from lying to recruits to adultery.

A series of turnovers, busted coverages and a frightening loss of composure that resulted in the ejection of Arkansas defensive tackle Earnest Mitchell - who picked up the helmet of Alabama guard Justin Britt and hit him with it - contributed to Arkansas falling into a deep hole. Nutt's detractors could have pointed to those issues as proof of an undisciplined team. As it was, they would have more damaging ammunition later.

But Nutt was looking like a gallant leader who had kept his team together in the face of overwhelming adversity. The Razorbacks rallied from a 31-10 deficit 10 minutes into the third quarter to take a 38-31 lead on Casey Dick's 7-yard touchdown pass to Peyton Hillis with a little more than eight minutes remaining.

"I really thought this game was won in the fourth quarter," a seemingly dazed Nutt said afterward. "We should have won the ballgame. No question about it."

ALABAMA 41, ARKANSAS 38
Player of the game
Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson broke out of a fourth-quarter slump to go 7-of-11 on the final drive, including the game-winning 4-yard touchdown pass to Matt Caddell with eight seconds remaining. Wilson finished 24-for-45 for 327 yards and four TD passes. He also tossed two interceptions.
Key play
A pass-interference penalty on Arkansas defensive back Kevin Woods gave Alabama a first down at the Razorbacks' 13 with a little more than 30 seconds remaining. The penalty occurred on third-and-9 from Arkansas' 28.
Best coaching move
Trailing by a touchdown with 4:20 remaining, Alabama coach Nick Saban opted for a 42-yard field goal by Leigh Tiffin. The Tide still trailed, but eventually that move produced the winning points.
Surprise performance
Caddell did not have a catch in Alabama's two previous games. Against Arkansas, he had a game-high nine receptions for 91 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
What this means for Alabama
The Crimson Tide established itself as LSU's chief rival in the SEC West, especially with Auburn getting upset by Mississippi State earlier in the day.
What this means for Arkansas
Not only do the Razorbacks take a step back in the SEC West standings, they also have to rebound from a gut-wrenching loss that could linger. And how quickly will Darren McFadden be back after sitting out the Razorbacks' last two series with a concussion?
Noteworthy
With a 43-yard reception on Alabama's first play from scrimmage, D.J. Hall set a school record for career receiving yardage with 2,079. The previous record was held by Ozzie Newsome.
Maybe, but there will be plenty of questions about how the Razorbacks let it get away.

After Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin kicked a 42-yard field goal with 4:20 remaining, the Razorbacks faced third-and-12 with about 2:30 to play - and Alabama was out of timeouts.

Nutt's following move will be discussed - or maybe just cussed - throughout the Ozarks for the next week. Nutt did not have the services of All-American tailback Darren McFadden, who rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns, but was on the sideline with a concussion. So rather than run and milk the clock for as much time as possible before punting, he called for Dick to pass. Dick's throw to Robert Johnson was broken up by Ezekial Knight, which saved precious seconds for the Tide.

"They had 10 (defenders) up there (at the line of scrimmage)," Nutt said. "I thought maybe we could get outside and get one-on-one and then it would be over. I told Casey to run it if it wasn't open.

"I wish he had run it. Maybe he could have used up 10 more seconds. That's 20/20 hindsight."

Instead, Alabama fans were heralding Saban's foresight.

It took courage and a lot of confidence to opt for Tiffin's field goal attempt with 4:20 to play. After all, Tiffin had missed three field goals and an extra point in last season's 24-23 loss in Fayetteville. Plus, the Razorbacks had scored touchdowns on their four previous possessions.

Asking for Tiffin to kick the field goal, his defense to stop the Razorbacks and his offense to drive the length of the field for a touchdown at that point was like banking on drawing an inside straight.

What do you know. The card came up.

"The players are about as happy as I've seen this group of guys in the locker room after the game," Saban said. "It's really self-gratifying to see people that happy, and it was great to see the people in our stadium that happy."

The mood in the Arkansas locker room was the polar opposite.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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