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.

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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.

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.