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By Michael Casagrande

Correspondent

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Through 14 plays Saturday at Duke, the Alabama offense achieved the ultimate in balance.

Rushing yards: 99 on seven carries.

Passing yards: 99 on seven throws.

Mark Ingram's 1-yard touchdown run on play 15 broke the deadlock, but the balance of the Crimson Tide offense is unmistakable.

Through three games, top-ranked Alabama has run for 752 yards and thrown for 874. It leads the SEC in total offense while ranking second in both rushing and passing categories. Only 10th-ranked Arkansas averages more passing yards than the Tide, who visit the Razorbacks on Saturday, but ranks last in the SEC with 116 rushing yards per game.

The offensive hopes of coach Bobby Petrino's team hinge on the long right arm of quarterback Ryan Mallett. The rushing game has accounted for just 24 percent of the total offense.

Having a balanced attack is a source of pride for Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy.

"The beauty of our offense is we have a 'pick your poison' mentality," he said. "If you want to stuff the box, we're going to exploit you with the pass, and if you want to drop back in coverage, we're going to try to burn you with the run. That's the great thing about having talented players all around me. We're able to use whatever is necessary to be successful."

Last year, Alabama depended more on the running game to power the engine, but a Week 4 win over Arkansas put the passing game on display.

While McElroy said the opposing defense can decide how the Tide will attack them, wide receiver Darius Hanks said the offense has evolved beyond that point.

"We have a strong backfield and strong receiving corps and a good quarterback," he said. "We can basically go out there and do what we want to do."

The Razorbacks' shot at balance took a serious hit in the second game of the season when Doak Walker Award candidate Dennis Johnson went down the season with a "bowel injury" suffered on a kickoff return. That plays into Alabama's hands in that the Tide defense has struggled at times stopping the run. Duke enjoyed success on the edges of the line when discipline and assignments broke down.

Alabama hasn't pressured quarterbacks as much this season. It has just two sacks against the first three opponents, and they didn't use traditional pocket passers like Mallett. But with less worry about a dynamic running back who keeps the defense honest, the pass rushers can focus on Mallett.

"As a pass rusher, you do get excited when you know you're going to play against a guy who's going to sit in the pocket and try to execute his offense to the best of his abilities," defensive end Damion Square said. "Yeah, it does excite me as a pass rusher."

Contact Michael Casagrande at sports@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

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