Let’s face it, it’s been one of the worst years in Big Ten history when it comes to bowl games. Coming into the Sugar Bowl, the Big Ten was a dismal 0-5 in bowl games this postseason and not only were they without a win, but they were getting hammered by teams they should have been able to beat. Basically, if the conference was going to be able to save any face, then it was up to the Ohio State Buckeyes to win against SEC powerhouse Arkansas Tuesday night. The only catch was that the Buckeyes were a dismal 0-9 against the SEC in bowl games coming into this one.
Let’s make that 1-9 now.
It wasn’t the prettiest win and many will claim it was more of a win by default thanks to an Arkansas team who couldn’t capitalize on Ohio State mistakes as well as even catch the ball in key moments, but it was a 31-26 win and nobody can take that away from the Buckeyes or the Big Ten.
Ohio State jumped out of the gate running, piling on a 28-10 first half lead in what looked like the makings of a one-sided rout. OSU quarterback Terrell Pryor (24/35 221 yards, 2 tds) was sizzling in the first half, easily shredding the Razorbacks defense with big gains through the air and on the ground.
Named MVP for the second straight bowl game, he had the OSU offense firing on all cylinders in the early going and looked like a person trying to prove his worth on the field, which he probably was after many questioned his right to even be playing in this game. Pryor was one of five Ohio State juniors given five-game suspensions by the NCAA for selling memorabilia and getting discounted tattoos. But they don’t have to start serving their penalties until next season, giving them time to come up big for the Buckeyes in the Big Easy.
"Their contributions were important," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel acknowledged of the five players. "They’re great kids. And I’m looking forward. … We’ve got a plan. And if we’ll stick with our plan, we’ll be fine."
Prior to traveling to the game, coach Tressel made each of the five promise they were coming back for their senior season and Terrell Pryor reiterated his intentions of returning after the game as well.
"I don’t think I’m ready for the NFL," the quarterback said. "I got a lot of learning to do and better decision-making to make, on and off the field."
Arkansas tried to mount a dramatic comeback in the second half, cutting the huge Ohio State lead to 5 before two costly mistakes killed any hope they had. The first came late in the fourth quarter after a blocked punt with under 2 minutes remaining in the game. The mistake wasn’t that Arkansas blocked the punt but that Julian Horton opted to fall on the ball rather than scooping it up and running in for the score.
"He just wanted to make sure he got on the ball," said coach Bobby Petrino, who guided the Razorbacks to their first BCS bowl. "Unfortunately, we weren’t able to scoop and score."
The second mistake proved the most costly however, as it ended the game. With time winding down and the Razorbacks within scoring range after the blocked punt, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett threw dropped back and threw the ball into coverage, giving Ohio State defensive lineman Solomon Thomas the chance to make an easy interception and seal the game for the Buckeyes.
"I didn’t see the guy," Mallett said. "I tried to get rid of it quick. They had pressure coming. I didn’t see him. He made a great play."
Like I said earlier, Ohio State’s win wasn’t pretty but it was a win and a major one at that. Any win you can get over the best conference in the college ranks, the SEC, is a win to cherish and the fact that it came in a nationally televised BCS game makes it all the sweeter.
"They have a great conference. No one would refute that," Tressel said. "To beat a team like that is special."