Hoping To Feast On The Hogs

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.

Advertisements

A Beat-Down Big Ten

Five Big Ten teams played New Year’s Day bowls yesterday, and all five lost.  Even worse from the standpoint of proud Big Ten fans, conference teams were swept by the SEC, and two of the games were blowouts, as  Alabama pulverized Michigan State and Mississippi State crushed Michigan.

I’m sure that there are some Big Ten fans, somewhere, who are making excuses for the poor performances, and others who are saying that bowl games are all about match-ups and the match-ups were unfavorable.  When it comes to college football respect, however, perception is reality — and yesterday’s string of bowl failures reinforces the perception that the plodding Big Ten can’t compete on the big stage.  Going 0-5 is an embarrassment and just makes the Big Ten’s road to respectability that much steeper.

The conference’s last hope for some shred of redemption is the Ohio State Buckeyes, who take on Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night.  It would be ironic indeed if Ohio State were able to salvage some Big Ten pride by beating an SEC team in a bowl game for the first time after nine straight losses.

A Big Ten Bowl Day

Today five Big Ten teams play in bowl games.  The big game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Rose Bowl, but other Big Ten teams also will have a chance to strut their stuff on the national stage.  Northwestern matches up against Texas Tech, Michigan State plays Alabama, Michigan will break its bowl drought against Mississippi State, and Penn State and Florida will square off.  I’ll be rooting for all of those Big Ten teams — even Michigan.

In recent years Big Ten fans have paid careful attention to the conference’s bowl record.  They feel like the Big Ten is disrespected on the national level, particularly in comparison to the SEC.  (I regret to say that Ohio State is responsible for a lot of this perception.  The Buckeyes are one of the Big Ten’s flagship programs, and they have never beaten an SEC team in a bowl game.  That record unfortunately includes two national championship game losses.)  Bowl games are supposed to be fun, but for the Big Ten they are serious business, and not just because they produce significant revenue for the member schools.  Big Ten fans want everyone to recognize what they believe to be true — that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country, with the biggest stadiums, the richest traditions, the greatest rivalries, and the most dedicated fans.  If you want to exercise such bragging rights, however, you have to earn them on the field.

This year the Big Ten has gotten off to a good start in bowl season.  It is 2-0, with Illinois and Iowa both posting bowl wins.  Today will tell the tale, however, particularly since three of the bowl games match up the Big Ten and the SEC.  Each of the games, moreover, poses intriguing questions and matchups.  How will Northwestern perform without their fine quarterback, Dan Persa, and will it be able to win its first bowl game since the Truman Administration?  Can Michigan State put a signature win over the defending national champions as a capstone on a break-through season that has seen the Spartans win 11 games?  How will Michigan’s Denard Robinson fare against the Bulldogs, and can the beleaguered Michigan defense keep the Wolverines in the game?  And which Penn State and Florida teams will show up for the Outback Bowl?

To me, the most interesting game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Grandaddy of them all.  I haven’t had a chance to see much of the Horned Frogs and their top-ranked defense, and there are lingering questions about the toughness of TCU’s schedule and the Mountain West Conference.  TCU will have a chance to answer those questions when its faces Wisconsin’s power running game.  If Wisconsin wins convincingly, on the other hand, it will quiet complaints about the BCS system by members of non-BCS conferences.