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Buckeyes Buckeye Archive Preview - The Sugar Bowl - Ohio State vs Arkansas
Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar




SugarBowl3- Tuesday, January 4, 2011

- Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, LA

- The Allstate Sugar Bowl

- Ohio State vs. Arkansas

- 8:30 p.m. (ET)

- TV: ESPN -


The Ohio State Buckeyes have to be glad they can finally get back on the football field this Tuesday when they meet the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Sugar Bowl. What was supposed to have been six weeks of rest, practice and a little bit of fun in New Orleans for OSU players and staff has been overshadowed by two weeks of controversy and national publicity for rules violations by Buckeye players that occurred between one and two years ago.

Previews are supposed to be about football games, and we'll get to that, but it would be nearly impossible to talk about Ohio State's appearance in the 77th Allstate Sugar Bowl without touching on the off-the-field turmoil caused by the suspensions of four key Buckeye starters for the first five games of the 2011 season.

If I'm lucky there's an original thought about this scandal out there somewhere that hasn't already been pixelized. But every tired old bromide about the importance of setting aside distractions and concentrating on football can be recycled this week for Ohio State. It's barely necessary to say that the Buckeyes' ability to do just that is the biggest key to this game for them.

With every development in the "Tattgate" story being carried daily as headline news on the Family of Networks, the Buckeye football program has been dealing with issues other than football when they'd prefer to be preparing to play. On top of everything else, this week a bogus rumor made the rounds that Jim Tressel was planning to retire after the game, and he had to deal with his 2011 recruits calling him to find out what's up. Like he's not already busier than Smokey the Bear in a forest fire.

It's Not the Only Story

ArkansasHelmet1The game has plenty of other compelling storylines, even though there's absolutely nothing at stake in terms of the national title...(thanks, BCS). Maybe you've heard about the Buckeyes' 0-9 record against the SEC in bowl games, for example.

Then there's Ryan Mallett, star quarterback of the Hogs, who says he still hates the Buckeyes, years after transferring from Michigan. Better yet is the matchup of one of the nation's most balanced and powerful offenses in Coach Bobby Petrino's Razorbacks, against an Ohio State unit ranked second in the nation in total defense.

BCS games are old hat for the Buckeyes, as Tressel's troops enter their sixth consecutive contest as members of college football's elite, and their ninth BCS game overall, the most of any school in the nation. Arkansas by contrast is in the BCS for the first time, and they're playing in the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1980. It's fair to ask if the Buckeyes have enough to play for in New Orleans. Call it the "yawn factor".

As if the Buckeyes needed more baggage to carry onto the field Tuesday night, thanks to the Big Ten's dismal 0-5 showing on New Year's Day, now they've added the rescue of conference respectability to their burden. SEC teams went 3-0 over Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan on Saturday, and only the Nittany Lions were remotely competitive.

Then the Big Ten's standard bearer, the Wisconsin Badgers, got outplayed by TCU in the Rose Bowl, so clearly the conference image could use some polish on Tuesday night. An Ohio State win would elevate the Big Ten's mark in 2010-2011 bowl games to 3-5. That would salvage a little bit of conference pride, but it's probably not foremost on the minds of the Buckeyes going in.

However, if you have any idea what will be foremost on the minds of the Buckeye players Tuesday night, feel free to pick any prize from the top shelf. It's been a crazy week and a half since news of the violations broke on Dec. 23, and it's anyone's guess what their mindset will be.

Bucks at Full Strength...For Now

It seems like everyone from the Sugar Bowl reps and Ohio State officials to Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino lobbied hard to persuade the NCAA to postpone the OSU players' penalties until next season, and they succeeded. All five of the suspended Buckeye players, offensive starters Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey, Dan Herron and Mike Adams, and reserve defensive end Solomon Thomas, are eligible to play in the Sugar Bowl, and all are expected to be used by Tressel in the game.

Most of the pregame talk has centered on how the OSU defense will deal with Mallett and the Razorbacks' skill position talent on offense. That's the strength-on-strength matchup that gets people's attention.  The great unknown in this game is how the Buckeye offense, featuring the big four suspended players at crucial positions; quarterback, running back, wide receiver and left tackle, will fare against an Arkansas defensive unit that struggled early in the season, but finished by putting together a string of solid games.

Tressel has come in for some criticism for his handling of the scandal, notably for not insisting that the players sit out the bowl game. There's been no shortage of sanctimony from what we'll call the "off with their heads" contingent of OSU supporters, who lament the "disgrace" the guilty players have brought upon Ohio State. Puh-leeze.

Without belaboring this too much more than I already have, let's remember what these players did not do to disgrace their university:

They did not steal laptop computers, or anything else...they did not assault or rape or otherwise harm anyone...they did not cheat or plagiarize or commit any academic misconduct...they did not sell or abuse drugs or alcohol...they did not, in fact, break any laws at all. Clearly if these events had occurred at say, Iowa State instead of Ohio State, we would not be seeing the case's every development running on the ticker at the bottom of the ESPN screen. I comes with the territory.

It is not to excuse the violations of NCAA regulations, but only to place them in perspective, to note that the players were not actively hawking their rings and jewelry and other awards and memorabilia on E-Bay or Craig's List, looking to move them for cash. All the items sold for which the OSU players are being punished were purchased by one man...the tattoo parlor operator who ran afoul of the U.S. Attorney in some other matter, and had some of his property seized and identified as OSU-related. He had obviously befriended the players, and probably took some items in trade for tattoos, and then offered to pay cash for others.

A Choice of All Bad Options

Jim-TresselBut back to Tressel's handling of the issue. He consulted his seniors on how to deal with the players' punishment..(all four offensive starters have one year of eligibility remaining) and the coach came away with a consensus of two points from his team leaders.

First, the priority was to keep the team together. They didn't want to see any team members cast out from the group. And second, they felt the players should not be permitted to play in the Sugar Bowl and then be permitted to walk away from OSU for the NFL after this season, thereby avoiding paying any consequence for their violations of the rules. Since all four are draftable talents, this was a real possibility, if not a probability.

So Tressel forced their hands. He asked them to commit to returning for the 2011 season (and of course serving their 5-game suspensions) as a condition of their making the trip to New Orleans. No bowl game. Those commitments aren't binding on the players of course. But their names would be forever tarnished in OSU lore (if they aren't already) if any of them chose to go back on his word to Jim Tressel.

If anything, the pressure on the four juniors would appear to be alleviated somewhat by this commitment to return next year. At least they won't be playing with the knowledge that it's their last game as Buckeyes. And just maybe they'll have a little something to prove.

On balance, I think Tressel has been dealing with the issue as deftly as he could be expected to. He claims to have been surprised that so much of the advice he has been getting was concerned more with "how it looks" for the university, as opposed to what's best for the young men involved. Tressel takes a back seat to no one in his concern for the image of Ohio State, but in this matter, his primary concern is his players.

Oh Yeah...The Game

Petrino1Arkansas (10-2, 6-2) is coached by Bobby Petrino, who in his third season at the helm in Fayetteville. Petrino went 13-12 in his first two seasons, but he has brought it all together for the Hogs in 2010. Arkansas tasted defeat just twice this season, both losses coming against teams that at one point held the No. 1-ranking in the polls. (Maybe OSU can make it three?) Oh, and both teams featured a Heisman Trophy winner to boot.

The Razorbacks led top-ranked Alabama 20-7 with under a minute remaining in the third quarter before the Tide rolled back behind Mark Ingram to squeeze out a 24-20 road win in Fayetteville on September 25.

Two weeks later, Arkansas held a six-point lead on the Auburn Tigers in the fourth quarter at Auburn before succumbing to a 28-point Tiger onslaught in the final period led by some guy named Cam Newton. The Tigers were ranked No. 7 at the time, but you'll recall that they finished strong.

Conclusion? Arkansas can play with anyone.

Offense: Balanced and Explosive

Mallett5Statistically, the Razorbacks ranked 10th among FBS teams in total offense in 2010, averaging 489 yards per game. (OSU was 20th, at 448 yds). Behind quarterback Ryan Mallett, who averaged 299.33 yards passing per game, Arkansas was the 3rd best passing team in the country.

Mallett has 3,592 yards passing and a 66.5% completion percentage to go with 30 touchdown passes and just 11 interceptions in 2010. It's his second consecutive monster year passing the football, having totaled 3,627 yards, with 30 TD's and 7 INT in 2009.

As for balance, the Razorbacks in 2010 were the only team in the country to boast a 3,000-yard passer, a 1000-yard rusher, and five receivers with over 500 yards each receiving. They credit the late emergence of Knile Davis this season as a real key to their success down the stretch. He finished the season with five 100-yard games in the last six games on the schedule.

Davis, a 6' 0", 220 lb. sophomore, finished the regular season with 1,183 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Hogs, but 1,062 of those yards, and 12 of his 13 TD's came in the last eight games of the season. Broderick Green is the second-leading rusher on the team with 365 yards on the season.

At the wide receiver spots, Mallett has a couple of legitimate deep threats in Jarius Wright (38 rec, 718 yds, 4 TD) and Cobi Hamilton (31 rec, 609 yds, 6 TD).  Joe Adams (41 rec, 693 yds, 5 TD) is another reliable target for Mallett, though his production has dropped off somewhat as the season has progressed. The team's third-leading receiver, Greg Childs (49 rec, 659 yds, 6 TD) has been lost for the season due to an injury.

OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said this week that Arkansas tight end DJ Williams (49 rec, 589 yds, 5 TD) is the best player at that position he has seen all year. Williams has at least three receptions in every Arkansas game this year, and he seems to have his best performances in his team's most important games.

Arkansas ranked 16th in the nation in scoring offense, at 37.33 points per game. (OSU was 11th, at 39.42 ppg)

The Razorbacks run a multiple pro-style offense, and they are coached by one of the best offensive minds in the business in Bobby Petrino. In their ground game, expect to see a lot of stretch plays and sprint draw-type action, designed to get Knile Davis outside where his speed-power combination takes over.

In the passing attack, the Razorbacks are a big-play offense. They have had trouble sustaining long drives, so they take advantage of Mallett's strong arm and the speed of their receivers to go downfield early and often. Expect a lot of deep corner routes and in general, a deep outside passing game designed to avoid safety help.

Jim Heacock's OSU defense is known for playing to prevent the big play, and for forcing the opponent to make first downs and sustain long possessions. This is the chess match that fans are anxious to see play out Tuesday night. The coach that is able to dictate the terms on which the match is played gains the advantage.

Improving on Defense

ArkansasRazorbackAThe Razorbacks have very good size and athleticism on the defensive line, as you'd expect from any SEC program. The defensive ends, Jake Bequette (6' 5", 270 lbs) had 7 sacks on the season, one more than his running mate at end on the other side, Tenarious Wright. While they defend well against both the run and the pass, neither is what you'd call a great speed pass-rusher.

In the middle of the line are two young defensive tackles, freshman Byran Jones and sophomore DeQuinta Jones, both well over 300 pounds, and both with excellent quickness and power.

Middle backer Jerry Franklin and outside linebacker Anthony Leon are solid in run support, and they'll both be a part of coordinator Willy Robinson's various blitz packages.

The Razorbacks' base defense is a 4-2-5 set, and they are strong in the secondary, led by cornerbacks Darius Winston and Isaac Madison.

The numbers don't tell the true story for these Razorbacks on defense. They allow 339.8 yards per game, but they arguably play a considerably tougher schedule than Ohio State (which allows just 250 yards per game). Giving up 65 points to Auburn skews the stats somewhat, and as noted, they played much better on defense down the stretch. They are solid on 3rd-down conversion defense, allowing just about 32% conversion, good enough for 6th in the nation (OSU ranks 5th).

OSU Seniors Bowing Out

Rolle15Tuesday night will be the final game in Scarlet and Gray for 24 Buckeye seniors. With a career record of 43-8, these young men have a chance to tie the all-time OSU record, set last year by the seniors of 2009, for most career victories, with 44. And like last year's seniors, no one among them has ever been on an Ohio State team that lost to Michigan. For that, and for all the memories, Buckeye Nation salutes and thanks you....

Devin Barclay, Justin Boren, Bryant Browning, Chimdi Chekwa, Ricky Crawford, Aaron Gant, Cameron Heyward, Jermale Hines, Ross Homan, Garrett Hummel, Josh Kerr, Dexter Larimore, Chris Malone, Don Matheney, Jake McQuaide, Andrew Miller, Brian Rolle, Brandon Saine, Dane Sanzenbacher, Grant Schwartz, Scott Sika, Connor Smith, Devon Torrence and Taurian Washington.

Idle Speculation

Under normal circumstances, I would look at the several factors that I feel favor the Buckeyes in this matchup: probably the superior defense...a better turnover margin (+14 vs +2)...and a major chip on the shoulder (0-9 vs the SEC...obviously also a factor arguing the other way), and predict an OSU victory.

As it is, with the suspension issue clouding everything else, my inclination is to lean toward Arkansas finding a way to win it. Still I think it will come down to a couple of key factors:

If Jim Tressel comes up with a creative and aggressive offensive game plan, featuring a good number of Terrelle Pryor rushing attempts and a commitment to a controlled short-to-intermediate passing other words...something similar to last year's Rose Bowl game plan...then I think OSU can score enough to win the game.

Second...and it almost goes without saying...a level-headed, relatively mistake-free performance by Pryor. His career has been typified by his inconsistency...and the unpredictability of when Bad Pryor will raise its head. This game will tell us if Pryor has achieved anything close to mental toughness.

Third, the ability of the OSU defense to put pressure on Mallett with the front four...and if that fails early in the adapt by sending more bodies after him with linebackers and DB's.

In the end, I think Mallett and his receivers burn the OSU secondary enough times to outpoint the Buckeyes and keep the SEC hex in place. Of course you know I'd love to be wrong.

Arkansas 24, OSU 22




Big Ten game preview

OSU - Game Notes (pdf)

Ohio State - ESPN Home

OSU - 2010 Roster

Arkansas - ESPN Home

Arkansas - 2010 Roster

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