No More SEC Monkey On The Back

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The SEC monkey is finally off the back of Buckeye Nation. In fact, the poor chimp has been hurled to the ground and is left bloodied and whimpering as Ohio State roared back from a 21-6 deficit to stomp number 1 Alabama. Ohio State now moves on to the national championship game against Oregon.

It’s great to finally win a clutch game against the best SEC team when all the marbles were on the line, but it’s especially sweet to come back from a big deficit when many people thought a blowout was coming. The Buckeyes rolled on the ground, with Ezekiel Elliott rushing for more than 200 yards and two TDs, including a backbreaking 85-yarder. And Cardale Jones, OSU’s third-string QB, played with poise and made a number of big throws and runs. And Ohio State’s defense forced three turnovers in the second half to seal the win.

Tomorrow I’ll think about Oregon, but for now I’ll savor that win over the SEC’s best and the demise of that damn monkey. The Big Ten has finally regained a bit of its luster.

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Scratching The SEC Itch

If there’s one thing that drives Ohio State fans to distraction, it’s the Buckeyes’ notorious lack of success against the SEC.  Whether it’s the shellacking Bear Bryant put on Woody Hayes back in the ’70s, or the crushing losses to Florida and LSU in back-to-back BCS National Championship games during the Jim Tressel era, loyal members of Buckeye Nation have endured terrible performances against SEC teams in big games.  And when Ohio State finally seemed to lance the boil by beating Arkansas in a bowl game a few years ago, that victory was snatched away as a result of the “Tattoogate” scandal.

So, what’s an OSU fan supposed to think about the fact that when Ohio State made the first-ever four-team major college playoff this year, it was paired against the Alabama Crimson Tide, the consensus choice for best team in the land and an SEC team to boot, in its first game?

Call me crazy, but I welcome this challenge.  Ohio State might get its butt kicked, but it will never have a better chance to definitively end the SEC Curse and stop all the laughing and name-calling than it does in this game, this year.  Alabama is the SEC personified, and they will be the prohibitive favorite, too.  If Ohio State can somehow prevail — despite the presumptive advantages to the Tide stemming from “Southern speed,” the murderous schedule they’ve played in the world-beating SEC West, and the legions of five-star studs that Nick Saban lures to Tuscaloosa every year, maybe the SEC fans will finally shut up and recognize that Midwestern teams know their way around a pigskin, too.

I’m old school about how sports are supposed to work.  Alabama is the most successful college football program right now; Ohio State aspires to that position.  The best way for Ohio State to achieve its goal is to beat the best in a big game — and they’ve got that opportunity.  Now is the time.  If the Buckeyes lay an egg and Alabama crushes them like it did Notre Dame, we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves, and the SEC buffs have every right to crow and call the Buckeyes an overrated program from a candy-ass conference.  If Ohio State somehow wins the game, however, we’ll lance that SEC boil, once and for all.

I really, really want to lance that boil.

O-Fer No Longer, And Buckeye Nation Rejoices

Finally!  Finally! Finally! Ohio State has beaten an SEC team in a bowl game.  The Buckeyes held on to beat Arkansas, 31-26, in a wild game at the 2011 Sugar Bowl.

At times it seemed like this game would not end and the fates had decreed that Ohio State was destined to lose.  There was a weird safety call.  Lots of injuries to key players, including Chimdi Chekwa, Cam Heyward, and Terrelle Pryor.  A fumble by Boom Herron on a crucial fourth-down conversion.  And ultimately a blocked punt that gave Arkansas the ball in great field position.  But somehow Ohio State’s defense refused to crumble.  Solomon Thomas intercepted Ryan Mallett as Arkansas was on Ohio State’s doorstep, and that sealed the win.

Say what you will about Terrelle Pryor, but he played a great game — and he is the only Ohio State quarterback to beat the SEC in a bowl game.  Pryor ran, passed, and made a slew of big plays to convert third downs and move the chains.  And Ohio State’s defense played a “bend, but don’t break” approach to perfection.  Arkansas moved the ball, but the D would make a big play and force a punt or a field goal attempt by a team that is used to scoring touchdowns.  Cam Heyward was a force on the defensive line all night long.  He has been a great Buckeye — one who returned for his senior year, when he could have gone pro — and he was rewarded with a game that Buckeye Nation will remember forever.  He will be missed.  And the rest of the defense also did a great job in holding Arkansas at bay and then, finally, forcing the turnover that ended the game.

Ohio State can’t brag about their record against the SEC.  They sprinted to a lead in this game, and then held on for dear life.  But it feels very sweet indeed that the Buckeyes have finally thrown the SEC bowl game monkey off their backs, and in the process salvaged a bit of pride for the Big Ten conference.  Congratulations to the entire team and Coach Tressel and his staff on a 12-1 season that showed, again, that Ohio State has fielded one of the best teams in the country.

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.

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.

The Sugar Bowl, Now Not So Sweet

The Ohio State University and the Buckeye Nation got a shock yesterday, as the NCAA announced that six players would be suspended for violations of NCAA rules.  The players include starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, starting tailback Dan “Boom” Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, starting lineman Mike Adams, and two reserves.

The players apparently accepted discounts on tattoos and sold items they had received from the University, including uniforms, Big Ten championships rings, and the tiny “gold pants” that Ohio State players receive when the teams beats Michigan.  The incidents occurred two years ago, when the players were freshmen.  Pryor, Herron, Posey, and Adams will be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season, but will be permitted to play in the upcoming Sugar Bowl.  In the meantime, Ohio State is appealing the penalties as being overly harsh.

I feel sorry for the players — who evidently say, with conviction, that once they were given the items they thought they were free to do whatever they wanted with them, and who used the money they received to help their families — but I feel especially sorry for the University.  Ohio State views itself as more than a school with a good football team.  It believes itself to be, first and foremost, a world-class research institution and learning facility that just happens to have excellent sports programs.  When an incident like this occurs, it hurts that self-perception, and no doubt causes people elsewhere in the country to conclude that Ohio State is just another “football factory,” and nothing more.

It leaves a bitter taste on the days leading up to the Sugar Bowl, at a time when the school and the team should be enjoying a successful season capped by another Big Ten championship and looking forward, with unimpaired focus, to a chance to shake off the “can’t beat the SEC” canard against a talented Arkansas Razorbacks team.