FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- When it was time to win Saturday in the biggest game -- certainly the most hyped game -- they’ve played in these parts in more than three decades, one team looked as cool and composed as Clint Eastwood riding into town in one of his famed Westerns.
The other team looked unsure whether it really belonged in the kind of electric atmosphere that doesn’t come around every weekend, even in the football-crazed world of the SEC.
Alabama and Arkansas both had their moments when they resembled championship football teams.
The difference was that Alabama finished like a champion, coming back from 13 points down to hand Arkansas a bitter 24-20 defeat at Razorback Stadium.
The No. 1 Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0) extended their winning streak to 18 straight games. More importantly, they demonstrated the same poise under pressure that carried them to a national championship a year ago.
“It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish,” said Alabama senior quarterback Greg McElroy, who epitomized the Crimson Tide’s turnaround.
After throwing a pair of interceptions in the first half, McElroy made every right decision in the second half in leading Alabama to 17 unanswered points.
The Crimson Tide kept the ball away from Arkansas in the third quarter and held onto the ball for nearly 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, the frustration started to set in for the No. 10-ranked Hogs, who managed just 120 yards of total offense in the second half. Each of their last two possessions ended in Ryan Mallett interceptions.
That’s after a first half that saw Arkansas receivers running free in the Alabama secondary and Mallett having his way in one of the worst exhibitions of defensive football you'll ever see for a Nick Saban team.
Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who had one of Alabama’s three interceptions on the day, admitted that the Crimson Tide’s young secondary was shell-shocked early.
The important thing, though, is that they didn’t stay that way.
“We hadn’t played in an atmosphere like this, and we had to adjust,” Kirkpatrick said. “A lot of us hadn’t played in a stadium this loud and being on the road like this. But we grew up, and we stepped up.
“Hey, if it takes this to be a champion, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
For the second week in a row, Arkansas (3-1, 1-1) couldn’t protect a lead by running the football. The Hogs only had had 10 rushing yards on six carries in the fourth quarter last week against Georgia after jumping out to a 24-10 lead.
Against Alabama, the Hogs were held to 64 yards on the ground for the game. But in the second half, they managed just 13 rushing yards on seven carries.
“We just couldn’t find a way to win in the fourth quarter,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “We had the opportunity and just couldn’t get it done.”
A big reason why was because the Crimson Tide wouldn’t let them.
They drove 74 yards in eight plays, ending with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Trent Richardson on a screen play, to pull within 20-14.
They kept the football for 16 plays on their next possession, ending with Jeremy Shelley’s 36-yard field goal, to pull within three points.
By that time, the momentum had long since turned in Alabama’s favor.
“You could just see the look on those guys’ faces,” said junior receiver Julio Jones, who had several key third-down receptions. “They were gasping for air, and we were going to keep the tempo going and stay on them.”
Sophomore offensive guard Barrett Jones sensed the same thing.
“I felt they were getting a little tired and could feel the momentum swinging, and that’s when we wanted to drive the nail in the coffin, as we put it, and put the hammer down,” Barrett Jones said.
Even after Alabama had taken the 24-20 lead on Mark Ingram’s second touchdown run, the Crimson Tide didn’t want to take any chances.
They had the ball at their own 44 with 54 seconds to play and were facing fourth-and-inches. After trying to draw Arkansas offsides the first time, the Alabama players were lobbying hard for Saban to go for it.
He didn't flinch.
“We didn’t want to punt it back to them,” Barrett Jones said. “We told coach we’d get that yard for him, and I’m glad he had confidence in us.”
In the end, it was an Alabama team that had been there and an Arkansas team that had not.
And that was never more apparent than when it came time to win the game.
“We're a team that just refuses to lose,” McElroy said.