By JEFF LATZKE / The Associated Press
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Nick Saban doesn’t want his players to forget the poor first half that put Alabama in a hole on the road at Arkansas.
He wants it to be a lesson about what can happen if the top-ranked Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0 SEC) aren’t playing at their best. It took the largest second-half comeback of Saban’s tenure for Alabama to pull out of a 13-point hole and rally to beat Arkansas 24-20.
And now, the Tide need to correct their mistakes quickly. No. 7 Florida (4-0, 2-0) rolls into Tuscaloosa on Saturday for a rematch of the past two SEC championship games and a meeting of the last two national champions. After that, it’s another tough road test at No. 20 South Carolina.
Even in victory, the scare at then-No. 10 Arkansas revealed that Alabama’s inexperienced defense still has some room for improvement. And Greg McElroy was practically being consoled by his family after a rare two-interception performance that still pushed him to 18-0 as the Tide’s starting quarterback.
“The main thing was they weren’t doing anything that had us down. We were shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, who had the go-ahead touchdown in the final 4 minutes.
“We had blown coverages numerously on defense, missed tackles, an interception in the red zone, an interception before the half. We just had to go out and execute and not shoot ourselves in the foot.”
The Tide had been just 2-5 under Saban when trailing at halftime and never overcome a deficit bigger than the 14-0 first-quarter hole they faced last year at Auburn. The Razorbacks had them down 13 with just over 5 minutes left in the third quarter.
“In a tough situation where everything wasn’t going right for us, just for us to bounce back and answer the bell and push through the adversity was huge for this team,” Ingram said. “It’s going to be a great building block for us.”
As it did during last year’s championship run, Alabama’s defense came up with one big play after another. Even before Arkansas stretched its lead to 20-7, the Tide were able to limit the damage on what was looking like another Razorbacks march for a touchdown.
Ryan Mallett had three separate passes for 18-yard pickups before Mark Barron, the lone returning starter in Alabama’s secondary, sacked him on a second-down blitz. Dre Kirkpatrick then snuffed out a screen pass to running back Ronnie Wingo Jr. for a 5-yard loss, leading to Ben Hocker’s field goal and keeping it a two-possession game.
First-year starters Robert Lester and Kirkpatrick then had interceptions in the final 5 minutes to finish on a positive note after giving up 357 yards passing to Mallett.
“Playing against a great quarterback like Mallett should build confidence that we can play against any type of quarterback,” said Lester, who also had a key interception in the end zone in the first half. “That should raise everybody’s confidence.”
So should Ingram’s presence. After missing the first two games following knee surgery, Ingram has gone over 150 yards rushing in wins against Duke and Arkansas. Saban turned to him with the game on the line, calling his number three straight times after Lester’s second interception. Ingram picked up the 11 yards needed, scoring the go-ahead touchdown as he fell over the goal line on a 1-yard run.
Ingram said he relished having the ball in that situation because “great players and great teams thrive on situations like that.”
And more could be ahead. Florida unveiled a new scoring threat with Trey Burton scoring six touchdowns in a 48-14 rout of Kentucky. With Burton, the Gators used the same wildcat formation that the Tide used with Ingram late to seal its sixth straight win against a top 10 opponent.
But not without some growing pains first.
“It shows heart and determination,” Ingram said, “and the camaraderie we have as a team is going to be so much better that we persevered through something like that.”