NCF Nation: AutoZone Liberty Bowl 2009 bowls

A quick look at Arkansas' 20-17 overtime win against East Carolina on Saturday in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl:

How the game was won: Alex Tejada, who missed a 43-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter that would have put Arkansas ahead, won it for the Hogs in overtime with a 37-yarder. Arkansas won despite sputtering on offense for most of the night. East Carolina outgained Arkansas by 110 yards, but the Pirates’ kicker, Ben Hartman, was just 1-of-5 on field goal attempts on the bitterly cold night in Memphis. He missed his final three attempts, including a 39-yarder that would have won it at the end of regulation and a 35-yarder during the Pirates’ possession in overtime.

Turning point: Arkansas trailed 10-0 at halftime and hadn’t done much of anything offensively. But back-to-back interceptions by the Hogs got them back into the game. Jerry Franklin returned the first one 31 yards to the East Carolina 20, setting up a Tejada field goal. And then a few minutes later, Tramain Thomas intercepted Patrick Pinkney again, this time returning it 37 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 10-10 with 9:04 to play in the third quarter.

Player of the game: Thomas, who saw his role increase after the suspension to Matt Harris, scored the Hogs’ first touchdown on the 37-yard interception return, and he also tipped away a pass at the goal line in the final minutes that might have saved the game.

Stat of the game: East Carolina had 14 more first downs than Arkansas.

Stat of the game II: The Hogs were 0-of-13 on third-down conversions.

Unsung hero: It wasn’t the best season for the Arkansas defense, which was last in the SEC and 90th nationally in total defense coming into the game. But defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, despite being down two starters, got one of the better efforts of the season out of his unit, which came up with two huge turnovers and held the Pirates to 17 points.

What it means: The Hogs (8-5) took another big step in Year No. 2 under Bobby Petrino with the bowl win, and they did it despite some controversy. Petrino suspended defensive starters Wendel Davis and Matt Harris earlier in the week for a curfew violation. The Hogs will now go into the offseason with a lot of momentum and have most of their key players returning. The key is third-year sophomore quarterback Ryan Mallett, who’s considering turning pro. If he returns, Arkansas has a chance to start next season in the Top 25.
For the second consecutive season, East Carolina fell a win short of a 10-win season because of a loss to an SEC team in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The Pirates jumped out to a 10-0 first-half lead, and though Arkansas tied it in the third quarter, the Pirates had two chances at the end of regulation to win the game off a field goal. It was tough loss for a senior-laden ECU team.

How the game was won: Arkansas kicker Alex Tejada made a 37-yard field goal in overtime to give Arkansas a 20-17 win. East Carolina missed a field goal in the earlier in the overtime.

Turning point: East Carolina kicker Ben Hartman missed three field goals -- two in the final 1:11 of regulation and one in overtime -- that would have given the Pirates the win. He missed kicks from 41, 39 and 35 yards.

Stat of the game: Arkansas was 0-of-13 on third down in the game, and continually opened the door for East Carolina to win, especially late. Because of poor third down play and poor punting, East Carolina had short fields on both of their final drives.

Player of the game: Running back Dominique Lindsay did all he could to help quarterback Patrick Pinkney, who struggled with two interceptions. Lindsay finished with 33 carries for 147 yards and a touchdown. He was the reason why East Carolina was in position to win the game on its final two drives.

Unsung hero of the game: The East Carolina defensive line put a lot of pressure on Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and forced him into some bad throws throughout the game. Because of the defensive pressure, Arkansas was never able to get into a rhythm, especially in the fourth quarter when they needed it the most.

East Carolina (9-4)

1. Let Harris be a playmaker: Harris showed his big play ability against Houston in the Conference USA title game with nine receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown. He is also a special teams threat with three kickoffs returned for touchdowns this season. Harris could be a game-breaker and ECU should do everything it can to get the ball into his hands.

2. Block out distractions: Thursday’s incident at the awards luncheon was an embarrassment for coach Skip Holtz and the ECU program, but the players have to forget about that and try and represent the program in a positive manner on the field. This game represents an opportunity for ECU to finish with 10 wins for the first time since 1991.

3. Get pressure on Mallett: One of the things that made East Carolina so successful in the C-USA title game was the ability to get to Houston quarterback Case Keenum and force him into three interceptions. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett is a good passing quarterback like Keenum, but has thrown seven interceptions, including four in the last three games.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
Breaking down the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Saturday (ESPN, 5:30 p.m. ET) between Arkansas (7-5) and East Carolina (9-4):

WHO TO WATCH: There’s a chance that Arkansas fans could be watching quarterback Ryan Mallett for the final time in a Hogs’ uniform. The third-year sophomore quarterback is considering turning pro after playing just one season at Arkansas, and there are strong indications that he will come out. Mallett said he wouldn’t decide until after the game, but you know it’s something that’s been weighing on him. He’s had a splendid first season in the SEC, leading the league with 3,422 passing yards and 29 touchdowns. He’s also been a perfect fit for Bobby Petrino’s system. The Hogs’ passing game is ranked 10th nationally, and Mallett has an arsenal of talented receivers to spread the ball around to, including Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright.

WHAT TO WATCH: In short, can Arkansas’ defense hold up? The Razorbacks were already ranked 90th nationally in total defense, giving up an average of 401.8 yards per game. They had trouble stopping people all year long, and now they’re without two of their most productive and experienced defenders. Senior middle linebacker Wendel Davis and senior safety Matt Harris were suspended for the game on Thursday for an unspecified violation of team rules. Davis was the team’s second leading tackler and Harris the third leading tackler. In addition, reserve defensive end Tenarius Wright injured his ankle in practice this week, and freshman defensive tackle D.D. Jones was already out. It looks like sophomore Jerry Franklin will move over from weakside linebacker to replace Davis in the middle, with sophomore Tramain Thomas stepping into the starting lineup at safety.

WHY WATCH: It’s been a solid second step for the Hogs in Year No. 2 under Petrino. They had close losses to Florida and LSU on the road and lost a home game to Georgia where they gave up 52 points. So this is a key contest as far as wrapping up this season the way the Hogs want to and finishing up with a flurry. Arkansas has won four of its last five games. It’s also a chance for the Hogs to end their bowl misery. They’ve lost 12 of their last 14 bowl games, which is easily the worst percentage among the 49 schools that have participated in at least 10 bowl games during that span. All time, the Hogs are just 11-22-3 in bowl games.

PREDICTION: The defensive suspensions have left the Hogs vulnerable on that side of the ball. But the best thing they do is throw the football, and whether this is Mallett’s last game at Arkansas or his way of making a resounding statement going into next season, you know he’s going to be primed for a big game. Chances are it could be a really big game. East Carolina’s pass defense is ranked 110th nationally, and the Pirates gave up 3,410 passing yards and 23 touchdowns this season. Mallett will take direct aim at that secondary. Arkansas 35, East Carolina 31.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
For the second consecutive season, East Carolina is playing Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl with hopes of winning a 10th game. The Pirates fell short against Kentucky last season, but returned almost all of the players from that team and are better for that experience.

They have had success against schools from automatic qualifying schools before, but have not fared well against teams from the SEC. Although this is the first meeting between Arkansas and ECU, the Pirates haven’t beaten an SEC team since 1999.

WHO TO WATCH: Dwayne Harris, WR, ECU

Harris might be the best player that few know anything about. He had nine receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown in the C-USA championship game against Houston and this season, he’s returned three kickoffs for touchdowns while averaging 27.4 yards. Harris missed the Liberty Bowl last season with a foot injury.

WHAT TO WATCH: The ECU offense

Yes, East Carolina’s defense gets a lot of the publicity and carried the team through the first half of the season, but the offense has come on during the latter half of the season and helped the Pirates win six of their last seven games. In those wins, the Pirates have averaged 38.5 points and 442.0 yards

WHY TO WATCH: A 10-win season

A win in the Liberty Bowl would give East Carolina its first 10-win season since 1991 and further validate the coaching job that Skip Holtz has done with the Pirates. Holtz was hoping for a run at an undefeated season and a BCS berth, but a 10-win season is definitely a step in the right direction.

PREDICTION: East Carolina didn’t beat a team from an automatic qualifying conference this season despite notching two wins against AQ teams a year ago. However, this team is playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of senior leadership. Arkansas has played well this season, but the Pirates’ nip the Razorbacks in the end. ECU 35, Arkansas 32.