After the New Year's Day Massacre in 2011, the Big Ten may never be the same. If Ohio State can overcome the distractions of tattoogate, then maybe, just maybe, some pride can be salvaged. That is the task at hand for the Buckeyes in the 2011 Sugar Bowl Tuesday night against Arkansas.
The Buckeyes, who went 11-1 this season, shared the Big Ten title with Michigan State and Wisconsin, and earned their sixth straight BCS Bowl bid and ninth overall, the most among all FBS schools. The lone loss in Madison against the Badgers (31-18) in mid-October kept the team out of the national title picture. Still, OSU rebounded from that loss with five straight victories and became the first school in Big Ten history to win at least 10 games in six consecutive seasons.
However, all did not go according to plan for Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes, as an NCAA investigation left five players' status for this game in question, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The five in question will be suspended for the first five games next season and were recently cleared to play in this game, providing they gave a commitment to return to Columbus next year.
Tressel commented on the distraction leading up to game time.
"Anytime you spend time on anything that's a little bit of a distraction, but we are fortunate in this particular case playing in the Sugar Bowl against a well-coached team like Arkansas. All you have to do is turn that film on and think about your good fortune to be in a BCS game and so forth. You can try to make up that time, but you know just like anything else you invest your time in certain things and wish you had more time for others. But with a little bit later game being January 4th it has given us an opportunity to take care of what we need to and when things come up you take care of them. When game time hits on Jan. 4 we will be ready."
The Buckeyes are 19-22 in postseason history dating back to the 1921 Rose Bowl and are a solid 5-3 in eight previous BCS games. The team had dropped three straight bowl games, including two BCS Title games prior to last year's 26-17 victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Bobby Petrino's Razorbacks were viewed as an SEC contender earlier in the season and went a solid 10-2 overall, but on the biggest stages in SEC play, Arkansas came up just short, falling at home to Alabama (24-20) at the end of September and then again in mid-October at Auburn (65-43).
This is the first BCS bowl game for Arkansas, but its overall bowl resume is extensive, with this marking the team's 38th postseason game, and sixth Sugar Bowl appearance. UA is 12-22-3 in the previous 37 bowl bouts, including a 20-17 victory over East Carolina in last year's Liberty Bowl.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs on the gridiron.
Pryor's suspension will cover the first five games of next season, so having him on the field against Arkansas is a huge plus. One of the nation's top dual threats, Pryor was the orchestrator of an offensive that amassed almost 450 yards total per game, with tremendous balance. One of the few teams in the country with over 200 yards both rushing (219.7 ypg) and passing (229.2 ypg), the Buckeyes keep opposing defenses guessing.
Pryor certainly matured as a passer this season, completing an efficient 65.8 percent of his throws, for 2,551 yards and 25 TDs. it certainly helped to have a pair of capable outlets down the field in wideouts Dane Sanzenbacker (52 receptions, 889 yards, 10 TDs) and DeVier Posey (50 receptions, 778 yards, six TDs). Posey will miss the first five games next season, as he was one of the five players involved in the recent transgressions.
As potent as the passing game was at times, everything on offense works off the strong ground game. Tailback Dan Herron, who will also sit the first five games in 2011, had a strong 2010 in Columbus, rumbling for 1,068 yards and 15 TDs on 5.6 yards per carry. Pryor got involved as well, ranking second with 639 yards and four scores.
Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson knows Pryor is the main priority for his squad, especially as he relates to the rushing attack.
"Their running game is very direct. They have some misdirection stuff a little bit. The guy we still have to defend is their quarterback. He's the one you usually don't account for. He's not unlike the other quarterbacks we've faced. He's very dynamic, and they do a lot of different things with him."
Everyone knows what to expect from an Ohio State defense and this year proved to be a lot of the same. The Buckeyes really made things difficult for the opposition, holding foes to a meager 13.3 ppg (third nationally) on 250.6 yards of total offense (second nationally).
Linebacker Brian Rolle made big plays all over the field this season, leading the team with 70 tackles, with 10.0 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, two INTs and one fumble recovery. Fellow LB Ross Homan (63 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, one sacks) made his fair share of plays as well. Up front, the team looks to Nathan Williams (44 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks) and Cameron Heyward (42 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) to lead the way.
The Razorbacks have their own balanced offensive attack, but in their case, the pass sets up the run. The team comes into the Sugar Bowl averaging 489.2 yards of total offense, with 338.4 coming via the pass.
Arkansas is led by standout signal-caller Ryan Mallett under center. The 6-6, 240-pound gunslinger came into the season as one of the most highly regarded passers in the nation and he certainly lived up to the hype, throwing for 3,592 yards and 30 TDs. Mallett has spread the ball around this season, with six different receivers hauling in four TD strikes or more. Tight end D.J. Williams led the way among pass catchers, with 49 receptions, for 589 yard and four TDs.
The ground game is much more than an afterthought in Fayetteville and tailback Knile Davis can make opponents pay for concentrating too much on Mallett. The 6-0, 220-pound sophomore had a tremendous campaign in 2010, rushing for 1,183 yards and 13 TDs, on a hefty 6.6 yards per carry.
The Arkansas defense showed flashes of strong play this season but in other games, the unit struggled. The result was a team that allowed 22.8 ppg this year. One of the main areas of concern has to be the rush defense, which allowed 157.4 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry. Still, big plays were common for this squad, which piled up 90 TFLs, a whopping 37 sacks and 25 takeaways.
Middle linebacker Jerry Franklin had an impressive junior season, racking up a team-high 93 tackles, with 12.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Defensive ends Jake Bequette (31 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, 7.0 sacks) and Tenarius Wright (36 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, 6.0 sacks) have made things difficult for opposing QBs. Safeties Tramain Thomas (71 tackles. four INTs) and Rudell Crim (48 tackles, three INTs) headline the play in the secondary.