Ohio State dominated the first half of the game, and then held off the surging Arkansas Razorbacks in the second half to win the 77th Sugar Bowl 31-26, and finally break their bowl game hex against the SEC.Â It was the first win in ten tries against SEC schools in bowl games for the Buckeyes, and they did it in one of the wildest and most entertaining bowl games in recent memory.
After a blocked OSU punt with just over a minute to go appeared to hand the victory to the Razorbacks, reserve Buckeye defensive end Solomon Thomas intercepted Ryan Mallet deep in OSU territory with 58 seconds to play to seal the win and give Ohio State their sixth BCS game victory.
Ohio State (12-1, 7-1) is now 6-3 in BCS games overall, and 5-3 under Jim Tressel, who now has back-to-back BCS victories after winning the Rose Bowl a year ago. The Razorbacks fell in their first ever BCS appearance, but all three losses for Arkansas (10-3, 6-2) came to teams that will finish in the Top 10 in the nation.
An Early Omen
There were signs early on that the breaks might just be going the Buckeyes' way on this night. Arkansas probably should have had a touchdown on their first possession, but didn't, and Ohio State probably shouldn't have scored one, but did.
Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallet made a perfect deep throw on the game's first offensive play that should have been six points but for receiver Joe Adams' drop. Then when Pryor fumbled the ball near the goal line after a 34-yard scrambling run on the first OSU possession, the ball squirted away from two Razorbacks into the end zone, where OSU wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher dove over four defenders to somehow come up with the ball for a touchdown.
Those two plays foreshadowed what was to come, because as it turned out, Mallet's receivers would keep on dropping perfect passes throughout the evening to help out an injury-depleted OSU secondary, and the Buckeyes would keep on coming up with big plays to hold off the powerful Arkansas offense.
The OSU offense carried them through the first half, as they built up a 28-10 lead at the break, but it was the Buckeye defense that repeatedly came up big late in the game when Tressel went away from the creative play-calling on offense and allowed the Razorbacks to mount their comeback.Suspended Players Rise Up
This game was rightly billed as a test of the mental toughness of Terrelle Pryor, the most prominent of the five OSU players given a 5-game suspension for 2011 by the NCAA in the days leading up to the game. I admit that I was among the doubters that Pryor could rise above the off-field controversy swirling around this game and perform at a winning level, but he responded with a very strong performance, especially in the first half, as did the other three offensive starters penalized by the NCAA.
Pryor threw two first half TD passes, and ran the ball effectively, mostly on scrambles, but also on called quarterback draws and rollouts. He did not throw any interceptions, and with a couple of exceptions (on which Lady Luck smiled on him) made good decisions with the football. Pryor finished 14 of 25 passing, for 221 yards through the air, with 2 touchdowns. He added 115 yards rushing on 15 attempts, making this just the fifth time in OSU history a quarterback has passed for over 200 yards and rushed for over 100 yards in a game. Four of those five performances have been by Pryor.
Dan Herron rushed for 87 yards, including a 9-yard TD run for the second OSU score, and DeVier Posey finished off the OSU scoring in the first half by hauling in a 43-yard bomb from Pryor to make it a 28-7 Buckeye lead in the second quarter. Tackle Mike Adams, the fourth suspended Buckeye on offense, combined with his offensive line mates to protect Pryor in the pocket, giving up no sacks to a Razorback defense that led the SEC in that department.
And after the Big Four suspended offensive starters all showed up to make contributions to the big win, it was the stuff of Hollywood script-writing that the fifth penalized Buckeye, the most obscure and unheralded of them all, Solomon Thomas, would make the last-minute interception that proved the game-winning play. Like they say...you can't make this stuff up.
Two Senior Studs
The punished OSU juniors were getting the pregame press, but two of the 24 seniors who were finishing their careers as Buckeyes came up with stellar swan song games. Pryor would win the MVP Award, but anyone who was paying attention knows that OSU defensive lineman Cameron Heyward was the dominant force in the game, from start to finish.
Heyward had his way all night with the Razorbacks offensive line, posting 3.5 tackles-for-loss, at times making a decent Arkansas line look just plain helpless. He added one sack, two QB hurries, and six tackles, and made a huge play to knock down a Mallett pass attempt on a 4th-and-2 at the OSU 30-yard line. It was 14-7 OSU at the time, and the ensuing TD drive for the Bucks put them in control of the game.
Then there's the Buckeyes' team MVP, receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, who made the aforementioned hustle play for the first OSU touchdown, and then made an juggling, tumbling catch of a Pryor throw from 15 yards out for his second TD of the first half. Anyone watching the impotent offensive performance the Buckeyes put on in the second half had to be wondering why they forgot their best receiver after halftime. Sanzenbacher finished with 3 catches for 59 yards and one receiving TD, in addition to the fumble recovery score. Way to go out Lil' Dane.
Only slightly less noticeable among the departing senior Buckeyes was defensive tackle Dexter Larimore, who had six tackles, plus two sacks and one hurry of Mallett. The conventional wisdom coming in was that the Buckeyes would have to get pressure on Mallett if they were to have any chance to prevail, and the entire defensive line came through in a big way. John Simon, Nate Williams and reserves Adam Bellamy and Thomas all helped Heyward and Larimore keep Mallett from ever getting comfortable in the pocket.
No Ohio State fan who has watched Jim Tressel sit on a 3-point lead with defense, a punter and a conservative ground game could have been surprised that The Vest decided to sit on the 18-point bulge he had at halftime in this one. That didn't make it any easier on the fingernails or the cardiac health of Buckeye fans though.
Mallet (24/47, 277 yds, 2 TD) and the Razorbacks moved the ball between the 20's in the second half, as the charged-up Arkansas players and the SEC-heavy Superdome crowd shifted the game's momentum in the Hogs' favor. But the OSU defense repeatedly rose to the occasion, forcing the charging Razorbacks to settle for field goal attempts on two of their drives, and forcing punts on two others.
Mallett found Jarius Wright for a 22-yard TD on a beautifully thrown ball against good coverage as the 3rd quarter was winding down, and the two-point conversion brought Arkansas within ten at 31-21. Meanwhile the Buckeyes were imploding on offense, unwilling to throw the ball much, and ineffective running it. They managed one completed pass and just two first downs in the third quarter while the Razorbacks were clawing their way back into the game.
The Arkansas punt unit kept the Buckeyes deep in their own end in the second half, and when OSU started their first 4th quarter possession at their own 4-yard line, a questionable call by the officials made it a one-score game with plenty of time remaining. On the first play, Dan Herron was met in the backfield at the 2-yard line and driven back into the endzone by linebacker Anthony Leon.
The play might well have been whistled dead at that point and the forward progress marked at the two, but Herron broke free from Leon's grasp in the end zone and took a step or two before getting dragged down, and the officials ruled it a safety. It is about this time that the friends and relations of Buckeye fans began to hide all the sharp objects in the immediate area.
If there is any question that the OSU defense rose to the challenge late in the game, consider that the Razorbacks began 4th quarter possessions on the 50-yard line, and on the OSU 44, 37 and 18-yard lines, and got a total of three points out of those four opportunities. That's clutch.
"The Most Important Play..."An awful free kick by OSU punter Ben Buchanan after the safety set the Hogs up at their own 44, and they were able to draw within five with a field goal even though they managed a single first down in the possession. It was the first of three apparent attempts by the Buckeyes to giftwrap the game for the Razorbacks in the 4th quarter.
Tressel said after the game that he considered his fatigued defense when he elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 37-yard line on the next OSU possession, and Herron appeared to have the first down easily on a dive over the left side. But he had been stripped of the ball in mid-air, fumbling for the first time in his three-year Ohio State career, and the Hogs were back in business at the OSU 37. All over Buckeye Nation, small children and household pets are being removed from harm's way.
A holding penalty and two Mallett incompletions forced an Arkansas punt though, and the Buckeyes took possession with 4:33 remaining. One first down later, it looked like Tresselball would work out after all, despite the nerve-wracking second half relapse. When the Buckeyes lined up to punt with 1:15 to play, and Arkansas out of timeouts, it appeared that Mallett would have to drive 75 yards or so in one minute, and score a TD to spoil OSU's evening.
But Tressel's "most important play" went horribly wrong as Arkansas' Julian Horton laid out over the OSU blockers to block Buchanan's punt with 1:07 to play. Had the Razorbacks thought to scoop up the loose ball and run it in, there would have been no Buckeyes in the area to stop them. Instead, with a minute to play and Ryan Mallett at the OSU 17-yard line, flashbacks to Colt McCoy, Quan Cosby and the final seconds of the 2009 Fiesta Bowl began to haunt the Buckeye faithful.
One play later though, despair turned to jubilation for Ohio State, as Solomon Thomas stepped in to pick off Mallett, and Bourbon Street braced for one last Buckeye bash.
The SEC hex is dead, and the reputation of the Buckeyes for BCS failure is fading into the dustbin of history. Ohio State will once again finish as a Top 5 team in the national rankings, and the prestige of the Big Ten Conference has been taken off life-support and upgraded to "serious condition".
One last footnote to the story of OSU player suspensions: Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron and DeVier Posey confirmed their intentions to return to OSU in 2011 in postgame statements to reporters. Mike Adams was less commital, saying he would wait to see how the appeals process plays out with the NCAA. Solomon Thomas, having been transformed from goat to hero with his game-saving interception, will also be back for another season.
OSU Athletics Communications - Official Box Score and Complete Stats
ESPN Box Score
Thanks to Jim Davidson and Dan Harker of The-Ozone.net for their terrific photography, seen above. Full Sugar Bowl photo gallery here.