FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The play was designed for freshman tight end Ben Cleveland to run 5 yards and stop.
Instead, Cleveland saw a hole elsewhere in the defense, improvised and caught an 11-yard touchdown from fellow freshman Mitch Mustain. Kicker Jeremy Davis added the extra point and Arkansas defeated Alabama 24-23 in double overtime on Sept. 23, 2006, which remains the Hogs’ most-recent win over the Crimson Tide.
“I’m supposed to run a 5-yard stop, what’s called a hitch route,” Cleveland said. “I had ran that two or three times in the game, but this time the corner bit down on it and I just saw an opening in the end zone. So, I just converted it into a go route and Mitch saw the same thing that I did, so he just threw it up. And at that time the safety came over the top and held onto my arm and I ended up having to catch it one-handed.”
Mustain and Cleveland, who were high school teammates and members of the highly touted Springdale 5, ended up being the heroes. But they would’ve never had the chance had it not been for Alabama’s kicking woes that day.
Crimson Tide kicker Leigh Tiffin, a freshman who was only playing as a result of an injury to starter Jamie Christensen, missed the extra point after Alabama had scored first in the second overtime to go ahead 23-17. This came after Tiffin had already missed three field goals inside 40 yards, including a 37-yard attempt that would have won the game in the first overtime.
“Him missing those field goals really gave us momentum,” Cleveland said. “They scored at opportunities that really took the crowd out, but then him missing those field goals really got the crowd back into the game.
“We were like, ‘Wow, did he really miss another one? Wow, he just missed another one. Oh, he’s going to miss this one, no doubt.’ So as the game wore on we felt that we had a chance because of all the missed field goals.”
Tiffin went on to become one of Alabama’s most-accomplished kickers and an All-American later in his career. But that September day at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium belonged to the Hogs.
“Just had a rough night,” Tiffin said after the game. “Guess everybody does. Just got to forget about it.”
As for Arkansas’ 2006 season, the victory propelled the team to an 8-1 record in SEC play and a berth in the conference championship game as the West Division champions. The Hogs, who lost to Florida in the SEC championship, haven’t been back to the title game since.
“I really don’t think I knew how big it was until later on,” Cleveland said. “It’s been 10 years and a lot of people kind of forgot about the game or the catch. But when the time comes as far as Arkansas playing Alabama every year, more and more people reach out to me and say, ‘Wow, it’s been 10 years. You were just a freshman when you made that catch with Mitch.’ “
Arkansas will get its chance at 6 p.m. CT Saturday to earn its first win in the past decade of the series. The hero from the last time the Hogs pulled off a win over the Crimson Tide said he’s optimistic about their chances.
“We’ve been so close so many times, but we just haven’t been able to punch through,” Cleveland said. “I think that time is coming this weekend.”