ATHENS — Ryan Mallett would look one way, then — BOOM! — he’d throw it another.
When he was finished duping Georgia, No. 12 Arkansas had a last-second victory on the road and plenty of momentum heading into a showdown with defending national champion Alabama.
Mallett threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns, including a 40-yard scoring pass to Greg Childs with 15 seconds remaining that gave the Razorbacks a 31-24 victory after they blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter Saturday.
“This is a really surreal feeling,” Mallett said. “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.”
Indeed, the Razorbacks (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) won on the road for just the second time in nine tries under coach Bobby Petrino, whose team had heartbreaking losses at Florida and LSU last season.
Now, they have that signature road victory — and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Next up: top-ranked Alabama in Fayetteville.
“Wow, what a game,” said Petrino, who returned to the state for the first time since quitting the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons with three games left in the 2007 season. “We stuttered in the fourth quarter and put our defense in a tough situation, but we got a good win. Beating Georgia was one of our goals before the season started.”
The Bulldogs (1-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) rallied from a 24-10 deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the game on Washaun Ealey’s 3-yard touchdown run with 3:55 remaining and seemed to have all the momentum.
Georgia got the ball back with a chance to win it, but Jake Bequette halted the drive at midfield with a ferocious sack of Aaron Murray, ripping off his helmet in the process. A poor punt by Drew Butler gave Arkansas the ball back at its own 28 with 47 seconds left.
Plenty of time for Mallett, who completed three straight passes — the last of them to Childs, who was wide open along the sideline, cut inside to fake out safety Shawn Williams at the 25 and went the rest of the way untouched for the winning score.
Petrino never considered settling for overtime.
“We are going to be aggressive on offense this year,” he said. “We are going to go after it.”
All three of Mallett’s touchdown passes came on badly blown coverages by the Bulldogs. He went 57 yards to Chris Gragg just 21/2 minutes into the game and hooked up with Ronnie Wingo Jr. on a 22-yard scoring play in the final seconds of the third quarter, giving Arkansas a seemingly comfortable lead heading to the final period.
“Mallett just throws it exactly where he needs to,” Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. “He looks everybody off. You think he’s going one way, then he whips his head around and throws it the other way.”
Murray rallied the Bulldogs, hooking up with Kris Durham on two long passes that set up a pair of touchdowns.
Ealey punched over the second of those, tying the game at 24. The Bulldogs had all the momentum but couldn’t hold on at the end.
Playing its third straight game without star receiver A.J. Green, Georgia slipped to 0-2 in the SEC for the first time since 1993. Green is serving a four-game suspension for selling a bowl jersey for $1,000 to someone considered an agent by the NCAA.
“To fight the way they did after getting behind, I’m impressed with them and I’m proud of them,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “If you make a mistake here and there, I can live with that. That’s better than a team that doesn’t have the heart to fight back.”
Murray passed for 253 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres King with 7:52 remaining, and ran for Georgia’s first TD on a fourth-and-goal bootleg from the 1. Durham had five catches for 101 yards.
Georgia had hoped to get back Green for the crucial game, but his appeal was turned down Friday evening, less than 24 hours before kickoff.
Even without his best offensive weapon, Murray showed plenty of poise.
“We were like 15 or 20 yards from winning the game,” he said. “If we could’ve gotten the ball to the 35-yard line, (kicker) Blair Walsh is probably going to knock it through.”
The game started like a repeat of last year’s shootout in Fayetteville, when Mallett and Joe Cox each threw five TD passes in Georgia’s wild 52-41 victory.
Arkansas stunned the Bulldogs before many of the fans had settled into their seats for the noon kickoff. On third-and-1 from his own 43, Mallett completely fooled the Georgia defense with a fake handoff, holding the ball behind his back until Gragg could get into the clear.
Murray hooked up with King on a 47-yard throw, then Murray pulled a bit of chicanery on fourth down from the 1.
He faked the handoff to the right, then took off to his left and dived into the corner of the end zone.
Knile Davis scored on a 1-yard run to give Arkansas a 14-7 lead, and the defenses began to toughen.