NCF Nation: Wendel Davis

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.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
1/01/10
11:26
AM ET
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.

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