All eyes on Mallett as Hogs look to next season

Published: Monday, January 4, 2010 at 5:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 4, 2010 at 5:32 p.m.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There's something about these season finales for Arkansas under coach Bobby Petrino.

The Razorbacks finished with another tense victory Saturday night when they beat East Carolina 20-17 in the Liberty Bowl. Alex Tejada, who has missed his share of big kicks in his career, booted the game-winning field goal in overtime.

It was a scene reminiscent of 2008, when maligned quarterback Casey Dick threw the winning touchdown pass in a 31-30 victory over LSU to end that season.

"I've been in these situations lots of times," Tejada said. "This time I just felt like it was a little different. I handled it differently. I just stuck with my technique and just went out there and did my job to help this team win."

The Razorbacks won five of six down the stretch to finish 8-5, so they'll head into the offseason with some momentum. Unless, of course, talented quarterback Ryan Mallett decides to turn pro. Mallett remained noncommittal Saturday after the game.

Mallett didn't do a lot to enhance his NFL draft prospects Saturday, going 15 of 36 for 202 yards with a touchdown. His overall season, however, was impressive. He passed for a school-record 3,624 yards after transferring to Arkansas from Michigan.

If Mallett returns, Arkansas should have one of the nation's top passing offenses. Sophomores Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams combined for 118 catches for 2,143 yards. Tight end D.J. Williams is also a receiving threat, assuming he sticks around for his senior season.

Arkansas has already shown signs of challenging the Southeastern Conference's elite. The Razorbacks played a brutal schedule this season that included road games against Alabama, Florida, LSU and Mississippi. They nearly won at Florida and LSU, but Tejada missed late kicks in both those games.

On Saturday, it was the opposing kicker, Ben Hartman, who missed two field goals near the end of regulation and another in overtime.

"Obviously I can relate to that," Tejada said. "I know he had a pretty good year, so I was really surprised."

Next year's schedule won't include Florida, and the Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU games will all be at home. The Razorbacks can't ask for much more than that as they try to make a run at their first SEC championship.

Still, they have plenty of improving to do, especially on defense. Arkansas allowed 401 yards per game this season, although the bowl was a step in the right direction. The Razorbacks struggled to stop the run, but they turned the game around with a pair of interceptions early in the second half, one of which Tramain Thomas ran back for a touchdown.

"It was a hard game. It certainly wasn't easy but we just battled," Petrino said. "The turnaround in the third quarter when we got the two interceptions put us back in the game."

Petrino took over in December 2007, and Arkansas missed the postseason in his first season. The Razorbacks improved quite a bit in 2009, and they didn't have many seniors playing key roles. Offensive lineman Mitch Petrus and defensive linemen Malcolm Sheppard and Adrian Davis will be the team's biggest losses.

That's assuming Mallett stays. He has two years of eligibility remaining but can leave for the NFL. He's been in college three years, playing at Michigan as a freshman and then sitting out a year before suiting up for the Razorbacks.

If he departs, backup Tyler Wilson appears to be the heir apparent. Wilson pushed Mallett during a preseason quarterback competition, but threw only 36 passes on the season.

Wilson has looked capable at times, but if Mallett returns there should be no adjustment period for this already-powerful offense €” and the Razorbacks can eye a much more prestigious bowl than the one they just won.

"I promise I'll let you know when I decide to do something," Mallett told reporters Saturday night.

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