September 27, 2011 9:40:00 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The No. 3 University of Alabama football team turned the showdown with the Southeastern Conference's No. 1 offense into a showcase for the top defense. And the Crimson Tide's special teams.
Trent Richardson, too.
Richardson rushed for 120 yards and caught a 61-yard touchdown pass and the Tide defense pretty much unplugged No. 14 Arkansas' normally high-powered passing game in a 38-14 win on Saturday.
The Tide (4-0, 1-0 SEC) scored on special teams, defense and using the old-fashioned power run to emphatically win a game that the Razorbacks (3-1, 0-1) hoped would stamp them as legitimate contenders in the SEC.
Instead, the league's top defense overpowered Tyler Wilson and the No. 1 offense.
"We set out to establish that we were going against the best offense in the SEC and a lot of people were labeling us as the best defense in the SEC," Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower said, "so we wanted to go out and show people what we were capable of with all cylinders turning."
The result looked a lot like the Crimson Tide's 2009 national championship defense. Alabama had 10 tackles for loss, two interceptions, six pass breakups and four quarterback hurries. The downside: Linebacker C.J. Mosley sustained an elbow injury, and Saban said he is questionable for next weekend's game at No. 15 Florida.
Tide quarterback AJ McCarron also came up big in his first SEC start. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
Marquis Maze scored on an 83-yard punt return and DeQuan Menzie returned an interception 25 yards for another score. McCarron, also the holder, hooked up with tight end Michael Williams for a 37-yard touchdown on a fake field goal.
There was also a clear winner in the showdown between Bobby Petrino's passing game and Saban's defense.
The Razorbacks came in averaging 47 points and 517 yards a game against questionable competition, but didn't muster many threats this time.
They managed just 17 yards on 19 rushes and were outgained 397-226.
Wilson sat out most of the fourth quarter after completing 22 of 35 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns under near-constant pressure. Alabama defenders seemed to sniff out every screen and swing pass to his dangerous receivers for little or no gain.
Ronnie Wingo, who rushed for 109 yards against Troy, gained 14 yards on nine carries.
"They beat us in all three phases of the game," Petrino said. "In the first half, I thought our defense did a great job of keeping us in the game with the goal-line stand. That gave us a chance to come out in the second half and do something offensively but we just couldn't do it. They made big plays and we didn't."
Richardson had his third straight 100-yard game and also caught three passes for 85 yards, including the screen that went the distance. Backfield mate Eddie Lacy ran for 61 yards and punctuated the win with a 4-yard touchdown late in the third for the final points. It was the first rushing score allowed by Arkansas this season.
The Tide found plenty of flashier paths to the end zone, though. The result was a 17-7 halftime lead that was never threatened by the Razorbacks.
First, Alabama lined up for a 54-yard field goal on fourth-and-4 before McCarron shifted back and took the snap. He rolled left and lofted the ball to a wide-open Williams on the Tide's opening drive. It set the tone nicely for a game when just about everything seemed to go right for Alabama even though Arkansas tied it by the end of the first quarter.
Williams said the Tide had been practicing the play for about two years.
"We've been practicing it for a long time but I just finally said today the first time we got in field goal range, whether we were ahead 21 or behind 21, we were going to run it," Saban said.
The Arkansas defense salvaged some momentum in the second at the end of a 15-play drive, stuffing three straight runs from the goal line to force a field goal.
"We pinned our ears back and got after them," Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith said. "For a defense, that's the best thing in the world. At that point, we had the momentum and were feeling good about ourselves."
It proved a small and temporary victory.
Three plays later, Wilson's errant pass hit Menzie on his right forearm and bounced right back into the cornerback's arms for a 25-yard interception return to push the lead to double digits.
"We knew they were going to try to take a chance to get momentum back," Menzie said. "I just got in my zone and I saw the ball. They'd been on me all day because I dropped (an earlier chance) so I had to go make the play on the second one."
Maze squirted out of a couple of tackles on a punt return en route to an 83-yard punt return in the third.
McCarron then barely cleared a defensive lineman on a swing pass to Richardson, who sprinted to the end zone to make it 31-7.
Despite heavy pressure, Wilson responded quickly with a 39-yarder down the left sideline to Wingo and a 19-yarder to Cobi Hamilton in the back of the end zone. He was pounded an instant after making both throws.
"We've got to run the ball better and to throw it around better," Wilson said. "They brought a lot of pressure, and we've got to handle it better.
"They're a great football team."
2. Howland likes MSU's non-conference schedule COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Walters column: Prep football season coming closer LOCAL COLUMNS