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September 22, 2010

Tide tries to topple 6-foot-7 quaterback again

TUSCALOOSA _ This is familiar territory for Greg McElroy.

Think back to a year ago, when he was still getting used to being the starting quarterback for the University of Alabama and Arkansas came calling. During the days leading up to the game all he seemingly heard about was Ryan Mallett, the 6-foot-7 transfer from Michigan who had a cannon arm and was being hailed as the next Bobby Petrino project.

Mallett was leading the Southeastern Conference in all the major passing categories, averaged 358.8 yards per game and 10.68 yards per attempt, and was coming off a shootout against Georgia when he set two school passing records with 408 yards and five touchdowns, but still lost 52-41.

Quite frankly, it got to him.

"That year I was playing with a chip on my shoulder it felt like at that point," McElroy said. "The fact that Ryan had garnished so much respect, and we had started the same amount of games in the SEC, I think, definitely put a little chip on my shoulder."

The game wasn't close. McElroy completed 17 of 24 attempts for 291 yards with three touchdowns and no turnovers as Alabama cruised to a 35-7 victory. He didn't have an incomplete pass in the second half, hitting his target on each of his final 10 attempts with the only two non-catches both resulting in pass-interference penalties on Arkansas.

Saturday the two teams, and quarterbacks, rematch, only with everything elevated with Alabama ranked No. 1 and Arkansas at No. 10.

Mallett leads the nation with 360.3 passing yards per game, is third with 359.3 yards of total offense, has thrown nine touchdowns in three games and is the SEC offensive player of the week.

"I just have tremendous respect for him, he's a great player, obviously has done great things for Arkansas and all the respect he'd garnered from the media and the players are well deserved," McElroy continued diplomatically. "Hopefully we'll have a great week and try to contain him."

McElroy has yet to lose a game, helped Alabama win its 13th national championship and currently leads the nation in passer efficiency (200.03 rating. Mallett is fifth at 186.50). Yet once again Mallett's name is the buzz.

You don't think that might inspire him again, do you?

Oh, and Mallett's also being hailed by many as a better Heisman Trophy candidate than the reigning winner -- with ESPN's Heisman Predictor poll not only having him in the lead but boldly predicts that with a win Saturday the award will be his to lose.

"I'm sure people are going to be evaluating his performance against the defense that we have," junior running back Mark Ingram said. "That's just part of the game.

"Big players love big games."

And stopping a big player will again be the key in Fayetteville.

Mallett's momentum

Heading into this season, the hype was already building. Voted first-team All-SEC and praised as a potential top 10 pick in next year's NFL draft, teammates were raving about Mallett's growth as a team leader.

"Well, he's always been a tremendous leader since the first day he stepped on here," Petrino said. "The things I'm really appreciative now is he's really echoing the themes of the coaches, he's really doing an excellent job of directing the team in the way that we want them go. I've always felt that to be a great leader you first have to be a good follower."

Meanwhile ,it's difficult for anyone to watch Mallett and not be blown away with his arm strength.

"It's pretty impressive," McElroy admitted. "He can really whip it."

But if there was overriding criticism of the quarterback it's that he hadn't won any big games. Last year he lost to No. 23 Georgia (52-41), No. 3 Alabama (35-7), No. 1 Florida (23-20) and No. 15 LSU (33-30 OT), and didn't notch a single road win. Although the Razorbacks obviously improved as the season progressed his lone win against a ranked team was 44-23 at home over No. 17 Auburn -- which ended up out of the Top 25.

"I remember when we came in, we didn't have the right mind-set going into that game," Mallett said about the Alabama loss. "I don't think we went in believing we could win, they took it to us. It showed up on the field.

"We learned from that game. (It) really helped us grow."

That's why there's been so much attention on Mallett this week because in addition to the obvious division showdown he keyed last week's 31-24 victory at unranked Georgia. After the Bulldogs rallied from a 24-10 deficit to tie the game he led the Razorbacks on a three-play, 73-yard scoring drive with game-winning 40-yard touchdown pass to Greg Childs with just 15 seconds left on the clock. He completed 21 of 33 passes for 380 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

"This is a really surreal feeling," Mallett told reporters afterward. "This is something I've never experienced before. This has got to be one of the greatest moments I've felt since I've played the game of football. It so rarely comes down to the wire like this. It's sometimes gone the other way for us, but now I know how it feels to get the win."

For the season, Mallett has completed 70 of 100 passes for 1,081 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions. Among his targets, Joe Adams leads the SEC in receiving yards with 344 (114.7 yards per game), Childs is tied for the most receptions with 19 and tight end D.J. Williams is also averaging 102.0 yards per game.

More telling may be this statistic: Mallett, who has already broken or tied 19 school records, is completing 70 percent of his passes after just 55.8 percent in 2009.

"I think he's more comfortable in what he's doing and what he's expected to do, not that he wasn't a very good player last year, he certainly was," Nick Saban said. "I think Bobby does a great job with him in terms of game plan, schemes and getting him in the right things so this will be a real challenge for this team this year, but also an opportunity for them to learn, grow, develop and try to get better."

Stopping him again

Mallett's statement from earlier this week probably raised a few eyebrows at the Alabama football complex. When asked about the Crimson Tide's pass rush last year, he responded: "I really don't think that had anything to do with the outcome."

The numbers say otherwise. Alabama accumulated three sacks, eight tackles for a loss, eight pass break-ups and eight quarterback pressures. He completed just 12 of 35 attempts with one touchdown and an interception, and the longest pass was just 25 yards.

Arkansas converted 2 of 14 third-down opportunities and on average had third-and-12.3 yards to go. The Razorbacks averaged 3.8 yards per play and the average yards per pass was just 4.57.

Alabama also did all that while sending more than four pass rushers only five times -- and who can forget cornerback Javier Arenas coming off the edge and trying to sack the much bigger hurler? Alabama's strategy was to shut down the run, make the Razorbacks one-dimensional and attack the quarterback a variety of ways, but primarily by collapsing the pocket with interior bull rushes.

The idea will be the same, but executed in different ways.

As for the run, Arkansas is dead last in SEC rushing offense while Alabama is somewhat surprisingly seventh in rushing defense. Although the Crimson Tide hasn't allowed a 100-yad rushing performance in 37games it's missing one key element from last year's defense, All-American nose tackle Terrence Cody.

"We have not played the run, in my opinion, as well as what I think we're capable of, nor as well as we need to," Saban said. "We haven't played it poorly, but it's not just one guy and it's not just one spot, it's linebacker fits on the runs -- now is it easier to fit the runs when you have guys up front that they have to take two guys to block for a long time? I don't think there is any doubt about that and you can defend things a little bit differently.

"The run support hasn't been what it needs to be on the perimeter at times. We've got to become a better tackling team. That does have an impact, but I think the guys we have here are very capable of doing what they need to do to play gap control. We've just got to do it the right way."

After serving a two-game suspension defensive end Marcell Dareus got his feet wet last week at Duke and Alabama made a front-seven change by moving Jerrell Harris back to strong-side linebacker and reinserting Nico Johnson at weakside next to Dont'a Hightower in the interior. Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw also appears poised to be back in the mix after being limited by a sprained ankle.

Getting more attention, but nearly as big of a concern, is that Alabama only recorded two sacks during the first three games while giving up only one touchdown and otherwise posting the best defensive numbers in the conference.

"That's going to come as the season comes along, right now we're not trying to show too much and taking what we get," Harris said. "A lot of people have been trying to get the ball out quicker."

Mallett has a tendency to hold to do the opposite, hold on to it a little longer to give his receivers a better chance to get open -- if he can. While Arkansas has pretty good tackles, at right guard, probably opposite Darues on a lot of snaps, will be freshman Alvin Bailey (6-5, 323 pounds). Next to him at center is freshman Travis Swanson (6-5, 305), while the other guard spot is an "or" situation, senior Wade Grayson or junior Grant Cook.

If Alabama can match last year's push up the middle, it could be another long game for Arkansas.

"Ryan Mallett is a great quarterback and has great weapons around him, so we have to get in and rattle him around a little bit and keep him uncomfortable," sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower said.


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