Tomorrow night the Buckeyes play the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Sugar Bowl. The media has paid a lot of attention to the story of the five Ohio State players who violated NCAA rules and will be suspended for a number of games next season. The only positive about that unfortunate story is that it distracts the media from talking, incessantly, about how the Buckeyes have never beaten an SEC team in a bowl game. Ohio State has a huge monkey on its back as a result of its bowl futility against the SEC, and they are desperate to shake it off.
Unfortunately, they have to try to get off the schneid against a very good team. Arkansas finished the season 10-2, losing only to Alabama and Auburn. The Razorbacks’ strength is a high-flying, pass-oriented offense that has put up a lot of points. Quarterback Ryan Mallett — familiar to Buckeyes fans from his days at Michigan — has had a fine year, throwing for more than 3500 yards and 30 touchdowns. Although the Razorbacks focus on the aerial attack, they also average more than 150 yards a game on the ground behind sophomore running back Knile Davis. Davis has breakaway ability and really came on at the end of the season. The Razorbacks defense is less touted, but played pretty well except for their track meet with Auburn, where Arkansas was torched for 65 points. The defense recovered from that embarrassment to play considerably better down the stretch, as Arkansas reeled off six straight wins.
Arkansas will be a tough match-up for the Buckeyes because the Razorbacks’ offensive strength plays into Ohio State’s defensive weakness. Mallett is a drop-back pocket passer who can be harassed into bad throws, but the Buckeyes have struggled all season to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Ohio State’s secondary has been banged up and has not faced a passing game even close to what Arkansas offers. The nightmare scenario for the Buckeyes is a game in which the line fails to get pressure, the blitz packages don’t work, and the defense gets picked apart by the Arkansas passing attack. Offensively, the Buckeyes will try to perform like Auburn did in their game against the Razorbacks. The Tigers gashed Arkansas on the ground, with Cam Newton rushing for nearly 190 yards and three touchdowns. Terrelle Pryor is a big, rangy runner like Newton — although he does not run with the same pop Newton brings to the table — and it would not surprise me to see the Buckeyes feature some designed quarterback runs to test the Arkansas defense.
Last year’s Rose Bowl saw Ohio State play against type, and I would not be surprised if Jim Tressel and his coaches have a similarly inventive game plan for the Sugar Bowl. Regardless of the game plan, however, the key will be whether the Buckeyes’ offensive and defensive lines can hold their own. Defensively, the Buckeyes have to get pressure on Mallett without rolling the dice on repeated blitzes and exposing their defensive backs to one-on-one cover scenarios. Offensively, the line needs to create holes for Pryor, Boom Herron, and the Buckeye ground game and give Pryor enough time to throw. To win this game, Ohio State will need to force turnovers and capitalize on their opportunities in the red zone; field goals aren’t likely to mean much in the face of the Arkansas scoring machine. And, oh yes — it would be nice for the Buckeye special teams to avoid the kinds of breakdowns that put them in holes against Miami and Wisconsin.
The Big Ten’s sorry performance in the New Year’s Day bowls and the flame-out of Miami makes it reasonable to question what Ohio State’s 11-1 record really means and how good this Ohio State team really is. We’ll find out tomorrow night.