Arkansas wins Liberty Bowl with OT field goal
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – Alex Tejada kicked the ball through the uprights, turned around and ran toward the opposite end of the field. His Arkansas teammates chased him all the way to the end zone amid a wild scene of celebration and relief.
Tejada’s 37-yard field goal in overtime gave Arkansas a 20-17 win in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday night after East Carolina’s Ben Hartman missed two field goal attempts late in regulation and another in the extra session. Tejada, who missed an overtime kick in a loss to LSU to end the regular season, redeemed himself by helping the Razorbacks overcome the upset-minded Pirates.
“I was pretty confident,” Tejada said. “I felt like the wind was blowing really favorably that way, so going into overtime I felt good about our chances to win the game. Once I stepped up, I had all the confidence that it was going to go through.”
“He took a lot of heat all year, and he stepped up and made a play in a big game,” Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett said.
Tejada missed from 43 yards in the fourth quarter Saturday, but his struggles were nothing compared with Hartman’s. The East Carolina senior missed four attempts in all, each at the same end of the field. He was short from 45 yards in the first quarter, then hit the left upright from 39 yards with 1:03 remaining in regulation with the score tied.
He missed from 39 yards again on the final play of the fourth quarter, then missed from 35 in overtime.
Arkansas (8-5) had won only two of its previous 14 bowls, and the Razorbacks insisted they were unusually focused on this one. It didn’t show. Arkansas’ vaunted offense had the ball for only 22:05. Mallett was named most valuable player, but he went only 15 of 36 for 202 yards and a touchdown.
“We never did find a good rhythm and we didn’t execute as well as we’re used to, but we stayed in there and kept working,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “We beat them. That’s what it is all about. I’m not sure who outplayed who, but we won the game.”
The Liberty Bowl is right across the Mississippi River from Arkansas, but the Razorbacks were playing in the game for the first time since 1987. Except for a small section of purple in one corner, the crowd was a sea of Arkansas red.
Those fans watched their team go 0 of 13 on third down. The low point came toward the end of regulation: After Hartman’s miss with just over a minute remaining, the Razorbacks went three-and-out in only 29 seconds, allowing the Pirates (9-5) to set up Hartman again.
This potential game-winner went wide right.
Hartman’s field goal and two extra points in the game were enough to break the school’s career scoring record, but that was small consolation.
“If you said you were going to have your all-time leading scorer with an opportunity to win it, who has won a bunch of game-winners for you during his career here, he was the one soul I would have picked,” East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said. “It’s unfortunate.”
Hartman wasn’t made available to reporters afterward.
East Carolina lost in the Liberty Bowl for the second straight season. Last time it was a late fumble return by Kentucky that did in the Pirates.
Dominique Lindsay rushed for 151 yards on 33 carries for East Carolina. His 3-yard touchdown run opened the scoring in the second quarter, ending a 99-yard drive by the Pirates. It was 10-0 at halftime, the first time the Razorbacks had been shut out in the first half since September against Alabama.
Arkansas had been averaging 37 points per game.
The Razorbacks tied it in the third quarter with a defensive touchdown when Tramain Thomas intercepted a pass and ran 37 yards to the end zone.
East Carolina took the lead again on Patrick Pinkney’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Dwayne Harris with 5:52 left in the third. Arkansas answered 36 seconds later when Mallett threw a 41-yard scoring pass to Jarius Wright to make it 17-all.
Still, it was a struggle for the Razorbacks, who became only the second major college team this season to win without converting a third down. Colorado State went 0 for 8 while beating Weber State in September, according to STATS LLC.
“When they go 0 for 13 on third downs, it’s a pretty good day for what you are doing defensively,” said Holtz, whose father Lou once coached the Razorbacks.
Pinkney, a sixth-year senior, went 17 of 33 for 209 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
The last time Arkansas played in the Liberty Bowl, the Razorbacks lost to Georgia 20-17 on a last-second field goal by John Kasay. That kick was from 39 yards, the same distance as Hartman’s fourth-quarter misses.