FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Trailing on the road against one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, No. 1 Alabama escaped by doing what it does best: making big plays on defense and giving the ball to Mark Ingram.
The Heisman Trophy winner ran for 157 yards and scored on a 1-yard run with 3:18 to play, and two first-year starters in the 'Bama secondary made late interceptions to help the top-ranked Crimson Tide rally from a 13-point deficit and beat No. 10 Arkansas 24-20 on Saturday.
Robert Lester set up the winning score with his second interception of the day against Ryan Mallett, and Dre Kirkpatrick's pick put the Tide (4-0, 1-0 SEC) in position to run out the clock on their 18th straight victory.
"We just had our focus on going out there and executing, and we played with a lot of heart and a lot of intensity and determination," Ingram said. "It's big for this team to have a situation like that and persevere like that."
The young secondary, with Mark Barron as the only returning starter from last season's national title team, had been surrounded by question marks leading up to a showdown with Mallett, the nation's leading passer.
Mallett put up 357 yards on 25 for 38 passing but it was the Tide's defense — as usual — that came up with the big plays down the stretch.
Lester returned his second interception 33 yards to the Arkansas 12, and Nick Saban gave the ball to his Heisman-winning running back on three straight plays to get the go-ahead score.
"We're going to finish," said Lester, who has four interceptions. "We're never going to lay down and just let them beat us. We're always going to play until that final whistle blows."
The Crimson Tide was able to run out the final 1:48 after Mallett threw his third interception, which came when Kirkpatrick kept his feet inbounds while reaching to catch Mallett's attempted throw-away on the right sideline. Alabama faced fourth-and-inches in its own territory, but Greg McElroy picked it up with a sneak with 54 seconds.
"If it takes this to be a champion, that's what we've got to do," Kirkpatrick said.
That sent Arkansas (3-1, 1-1) and its record home crowd of 76,808 away disappointed in the biggest game on campus in decades.
"We came out and competed extremely hard," Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino said. "We did a good job in the first half of getting the lead and getting turnovers, and then we just couldn't find a way to win it in the fourth quarter. We certainly had our chances."
For a while, it looked like all those students who set up an expansive tent city outside the stadium and the fans crowded onto a hill overlooking Razorback Stadium would have something to celebrate. It had been since 1979 that two top 10 teams met in Fayetteville, and since 1996 that the No. 1 team paid a visit.
But with its usual formula of defensive play-making and Ingram's tough running, the Tide started out SEC play with a victory for the 19th straight season. Alabama next hosts No. 9 Florida before heading to No. 12 South Carolina the following week.
With McElroy throwing multiple interceptions for only the second time in his career, Alabama leaned even more on Ingram in just his second game back from an injury. He lined up in the wildcat on the first two plays after Lester's pick, and bulled his way to the doorstep.
Then he closed the deal after taking a handoff from McElroy. It was the second score of the day for Ingram, who went 54 yards for a TD in the first quarter. He has 308 yards and three touchdowns in two games after missing Alabama's first two games following knee surgery.
"My main goal is to go out there and make plays to put our team in the best position to win games," Ingram said, dismissing any talk of him pushing himself back into the Heisman Trophy race.
"Everything else is secondary, and everything else will take care of itself."
Mallett, who said the Razorbacks never thought they could win during a 35-7 loss at Alabama last season, provided reason to believe right off the bat in this one.
He corralled a high snap on Arkansas' first play and tossed a 31-yard pass to Jairus Wright, then followed with a 43-yard TD pass to Ronnie Wingo Jr., who had slipped out of the backfield uncovered. He shrugged off Lester's tackle before making the final few steps into the end zone.
Kirkpatrick said it was a matter of the young secondary having never played in an "atmosphere like this."
Ingram responded with a 54-yard TD run, stiff-arming Ramon Broadway on his way into the end zone before putting his finger up to his mouth in a bid to silence the sellout crowd.
The Razorbacks weren't done making noise just yet.
Mallett led Arkansas down for a touchdown in the final 2 minutes for the third straight half, sneaking in from 1 yard out to make it 17-7 at the half. Ben Hocker's 48-yard field goal in the third put Arkansas up 20-7 before the Tide started fighting back.
Trent Richardson scored on a 20-yard screen pass from McElroy in the final minute of the third quarter, and it took 'Bama more than 8 minutes to drive for Jeremy Shelley's 36-yard field goal with 6:01 to play.
Given the chance for more 2-minute heroics, Mallett instead was left sitting on the ground for a few moments to absorb Kirkpatrick's pick. He slowly walked back to the sideline and never got a chance to make up for the mistake.
"We lost. What's a moral victory?" Mallett said. "You know, people talk about that. What's a moral victory? We lost. You're not going to find anybody harder on me than myself."