Big Ten: Buckeyes-Hogs-010411

Terrelle PryorChris Graythen/Getty ImagesTerrelle Pryor had 221 passing yards to go with the 115 yards he gained on 15 carries.
NEW ORLEANS -- Solomon Thomas took the field with about a minute left on the clock and no interceptions to his name.

It's hardly unusual for a defensive lineman to wait a while for his first pick. But Thomas hadn't merely gone through his Ohio State career without an interception. He never had one in high school.

He never had one in junior high school.

"It's what was supposed to happen," a beaming Thomas said.

Most folks think it wasn't supposed to happen.

The fact that Thomas was on the field Tuesday night for the Allstate Sugar Bowl created a cloud of controversy around Ohio State leading into its matchup against Arkansas.

Thomas and four others -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and left tackle Mike Adams -- had been suspended by the NCAA for selling memorabilia items and receiving improper benefits, but the NCAA decided that their punishment wouldn't go into effect until the 2011 season.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Dave MartinTerrelle Pryor was named the Sugar Bowl's MVP.
The deferred suspensions drew nationwide criticism, but Ohio State's seniors voted to allow the players to participate in the bowl. Coach Jim Tressel required the players agree to return for their senior seasons and serve their punishment, or they couldn't travel to the Big Easy.

Major distraction? Check. Major detriment? Just the opposite.

The Buckeyes needed significant contributions from all five players to hold off Arkansas 31-26 and record the program's first victory against the hated SEC in a bowl game. Thomas sealed the win by intercepting a Ryan Mallett pass at the Ohio State 17-yard line with 58 seconds left.

Talk about the Irony Bowl.

"It's kind of crazy how it happened," Herron said. "We had the honor of playing in this game, so we really had to come out here and make a statement."

Herron and the offense delivered from the get-go, putting to rest concerns about their mental states and ability to execute. Ohio State surged to a 28-7 lead behind Pryor, Herron's physical running and a powerful offensive line that overwhelmed Arkansas.

For the second straight year Pryor turned in a brilliant performance in a BCS bowl, completing 14 of 25 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns and adding 115 rush yards on 15 carries. Herron added 87 rush yards and a touchdown, and Posey hauled in a 43-yard touchdown strike and led the team with 70 receiving yards.

"We all play a role on this team," Adams said. "I block, that's what I do and that's what I did. DeVier, he catches the ball, that's what he does. TP, what can you say about that guy? He just makes plays."

But the biggest play came from the suspended player no one talked about; the non-starter, the guy who couldn't jump to the NFL draft because, well, he probably wouldn't hear his name called. Thomas entered the bowl with 14 tackles on the season, a solid role player and a guy who blended into the crowd.

He took center stage, though, as Arkansas entered Ohio State's red zone looking to score the game-winning touchdown following a blocked punt. Ohio State installed a new red zone package in its Nov. 20 win against Iowa, and the scheme called for Thomas to replace senior Dexter Larimore at defensive tackle.

"I'm going in for a senior, this is his last game," Thomas said. "I was just so thankful that I didn't let him down, that I'm able to send him out with a victory. [Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock] always stresses to us to send these seniors out the right way, and I was just so thankful that I was able, on this field, to make a play for my seniors."

Thomas took a two-step drop, looked for crossing routes and made the play on the ball.

"That's probably the happiest I've ever seen Sol," Adams said. "That might have been his first pick, and that's a great first pick to have."

The end result certainly could have been different without Thomas and the others on the field.

[+] EnlargeCameron Heyward
AP Photo/Bill HaberCameron Heyward had his best performance in the final game of his collegiate career.
"For those seniors, they wanted to be here for 'em, and the seniors wanted them here with them," Tressel said. "So their contributions were important. They're great kids. As [Pryor] mentioned, we've got a plan, and we'll stick with our plan."

The plan calls for all five players to return as seniors in 2011. Although Ohio State can't force them to return, Tressel sounds confident the players will keep their word.

"I don't think I'm really ready for the NFL," said Pryor, who earned Sugar Bowl MVP honors. "I've got a lot of learning and better decision-making I have to make on and off the field. Off the field, I need to grow up a little bit more, mature as well. I just have a lot of growing up to do."

Ohio State's senior class grew up the past two seasons, and they cemented their legacy Tuesday night.

Receiver Dane Sanzenbacher scored two touchdowns, including a recovery of a Pryor fumble in the end zone on the game's opening possession. Larimore recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and six tackles from the tackle spot.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward had his best game as a Buckeye in his last game, racking up 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.

"Cam was a beast," Tressel said. "He was all over the place."

So were the suspended players.

Whether or not they deserved to play is debatable. How they performed after getting the opportunity is not.

"When it all happened, our first concern was, 'Are we going to be able to help this team? Are we going to be able to play?'" Adams said. "You never want to let down your brothers, you never want to let down the guys in this locker room.

"When they gave us that chance, we knew we had to play well."

Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett wrap up the Sugar Bowl.

Adam Rittenberg talks to Ohio State’s D-lineman Solomon Thomas about his interception and the win.

Adam Rittenberg talks to Ohio State wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher about the Allstate Sugar Bowl win.
NEW ORLEANS -- Ohio State found a way to hold on and end its slide against the SEC in bowl games. There were some tense moments, but the Buckeyes can finally breathe easy in the Big Easy.

Let's take a look at the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

How the game was won: Ohio State's defense kept Arkansas out of the end zone and held off a furious Razorbacks rally in the second half. Cameron Heyward and the Buckeyes' defensive line put enough pressure on Hogs star quarterback Ryan Mallett, who seemed a bit off at times and got no help from his stone-handed receivers. Solomon Thomas sealed things with a clutch interception in the closing seconds. The Buckeyes had a terrific offensive first half, racking up 28 points behind Terrelle Pryor's precision passing, Dane Sanzenbacher's heroics and some dominant offensive line play. Ohio State's suspended players stepped up and the team maintained focus in the face of adversity.

Turning point: After Arkansas blocked an Ohio State punt and took over in the Buckeyes' red zone, Thomas, one of five juniors suspended for the first five games of 2011, picked off a short Mallett pass. The Buckeyes then ran out the clock.

Stat of the game: Ohio State converted 6 of 8 third down opportunities in the first half but didn't move the chains on its first four opportunities after halftime until Pryor picked up a huge first down on a scramble. Arkansas showed why it is one of the nation's top third down defenses in the second half.

Player of the game: Ohio State's Heyward. Pryor came up big as well, but Heyward was all over the field and really disrupted Arkansas' offensive rhythm at times. The son of the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward turned in a dominant effort in his dad's old stomping ground. Pryor also deserves a lot of credit after racking up 222 pass yards and 115 rush yards.

Second guessing: Arkansas had a chance to take on seven points at the end of the first half, but Bobby Petrino took a page from Jim Tressel's book and kicked a short field goal as time expired. Although the Hogs still had a chance to win, a touchdown right before halftime would have made things a lot easier.

What it means: Ohio State no longer has to hear about the SEC struggles or its inability to make plays in the clutch on big stages. A lot of folks will point to the controversial decision to allow the suspended players to participate, but the players stepped up and the team never fragmented. Ohio State now has won back-to-back BCS bowls and should no longer hear about the failures in the national title game. This was one that Tressel, Pryor, Buckeye Nation and the Big Ten really needed, and Ohio State came through.

Buckeyes offense comes to a halt

January, 5, 2011
NEW ORLEANS -- What a turnaround for the Ohio State offense.

After racking up 28 points and more than 300 yards in the first half, the Buckeyes' attack has been slowed to a halt after the break. This is the type of conservative play that drives Ohio State fans nuts about coach Jim Tressel.

Tressel made the right call to go for it on fourth-and-inches, but the overall play-calling has been far too conservative.
NEW ORLEANS -- As Ohio State's secondary thins out, the Buckeyes' defensive line continues to step up.

Injuries in the secondary are nothing new for Ohio State, which has had more than its share this season. The Allstate Sugar Bowl has claimed several more contributors, including first-team All-Big Ten cornerback Chimdi Chekwa.

But Ohio State is surviving against Arkansas by generating consistent pressure on star quarterback Ryan Mallett. Buckeyes defensive lineman Cameron Heyward has been everywhere, turning in quite possibly the best performance of his career in his final collegiate game. Senior defensive tackle Dexter Larimore also has done a great job, and three of Ohio State's four starting linemen have sacked Mallett.

This might not be the stingiest performance from Ohio State's defensive front, but they're making plays.

And they must keep stepping up as the Ohio State offense has gone to sleep in the second half, generating only 50 yards.

Buckeyes need to stay aggressive

January, 4, 2011
NEW ORLEANS -- We saw a lot of exciting plays from Ohio State in the first half.

Now we're seeing TresselBall.

For those unfamiliar, TresselBall is conservative offense, sound special teams and trying to prevent big plays on defense.

But after watching Arkansas match 75 yards in seven plays and score on a gorgeous Ryan Mallett touchdown strike to Jarius Wright, Ohio State might have to crank up its aggressiveness. The Buckeyes lead has shrunk to 31-21 entering the fourth quarter.

Ohio State's offense has been pretty quiet the last few series, and Terrelle Pryor needs to get creative in the fourth quarter against a revitalized Arkansas defense. The Hogs have more than enough offensive firepower to get back in this game, especially if Knile Davis keeps up his brilliant running.

There is a long way to go.
NEW ORLEANS -- Ohio State's defensive backs have answered the bell all season.

They lost three players to season-ending injuries, including nickel safety Tyler Moeller.

And each time they stepped up.

They'll need to do so again to finish off Arkansas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

All-Big Ten cornerback Chimdi Chekwa won't return after suffering what Jim Tressel called a serious injury in the first half. Tressel said Chekwa, who appeared to injure his elbow or arm, will undergo surgery later this week.

Chekwa is Ohio State's top cover man, so the Buckeyes will need players like Travis Howard and Christian Bryant to buckle down. Ohio State's secondary has limited huge plays but also dropped two catchable interceptions.

Buckeyes lead 28-13 midway through the third quarter.
NEW ORLEANS -- Thoughts at the half from the Louisiana Superdome, where it's all Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Player of the half: Terrelle Pryor. The Ohio State junior quarterback is making the most of his good fortune to play in this game. Once again, Pryor looks like he's made significant strides between the end of the regular season and the bowl game. He has made excellent decisions in the first 30 minutes, completing 13 of 19 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns, and adding 52 yards on the ground. Buckeyes receiver Dane Sanzenbacher and defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore merit mentions.

Stat of the half: Arkansas entered the game ranked seventh nationally in third down defense, allowing conversions just 31.95 percent of the time. Ohio State converted 6 of 8 third-down opportunities and scored two of its four touchdowns on third-and-long plays.

Best call: Not one play call per se, but several calls by Jim Tressel to get Ohio State's tight ends more involved in the offense. Jake Stoneburner and Reid Fragel have combined for four receptions and 82 receiving yards. The quick pass to Fragel was a new wrinkle and helped set up a Buckeyes touchdown.
NEW ORLEANS -- Arkansas entered the Allstate Sugar Bowl ranked seventh nationally in third down defense, allowing conversions a little less than 32 percent of the time.

But Ohio State is making it look easy against the Hogs.

After converting 3 of 4 third-down opportunities in the first quarter, Ohio State took a 20-7 lead following a 15-yard touchdown pass on third-and-8. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor looks poised on third down, and he's getting plenty of help from star receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, who already has two touchdowns.

Ohio State is mixing things up well on offense and showing a new wrinkle or two, like the quick pass to tight end Reid Fragel to spur a 70-yard scoring drive.

Arkansas' defense looks pretty shaky, so if the Buckeyes can contain the Hogs' offense, they should be in good shape.

Ohio State's D suffered a potentially big loss when star cornerback Chimdi Chekwa went down with an apparent arm/elbow injury.
NEW ORLEANS -- The big question entering the Allstate Sugar Bowl was how Ohio State's five suspended juniors would respond after a stretch of scrutiny.

So far, so good.

Quarterback Terrelle Pryor has made good decisions as both a passer and a runner, and he's getting plenty of help from running back Dan Herron. Tackle Mike Adams has anchored a dominant Buckeyes offensive line, and reserve defensive lineman Solomon Thomas teamed up on a sack of Arkansas' Ryan Mallett.

Herron already has 44 rush yards and a touchdown on seven carries, and Pryor is finding holes in the Hogs' secondary.

There's still a long way to go, but Ohio State's primary concern doesn't appear to be a major factor.

Buckeyes lead 14-7.
NEW ORLEANS -- To clear things up, that was an intentional onside kick by Ohio State.

Jim Tressel isn't known as much of a gambler, but he must have seen something in Arkansas' kick return alignment, or he wanted to sustain Ohio State's early momentum. Still, the onside kick comes as a bit of a surprise.

Arkansas took advantage and marched downfield rather easily for a tying touchdown. Ryan Mallett looks to be in top form, so Ohio State's defense needs to ratchet up its play and generate some pressure.

It'll be interesting to see how Ohio State responds to some adversity.
NEW ORLEANS -- Dane Sanzenbacher has made a living in the end zone this season, recording a team-high 10 receiving touchdowns.

But his biggest score might have just happened in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. After a brilliant run by quarterback Terrelle Pryor on third-and-long, Sanzenbacher recovered the ball in the end zone after Pryor coughed it up. Pryor seemed to be stumbling as he lost the ball, and a fumble would have really swung the momentum.

Ohio State did what it needed on the opening drive, running the ball well against a mediocre Arkansas defense. Dan Herron was especially physical, and he's getting help from the offensive line. Ohio State can run the ball and control the clock against the Razorbacks, and they need to keep it up.

The Buckeyes typically start slowly, so this is a good sign. Ohio State leads 7-0.

Ohio State-Arkansas pregame

January, 4, 2011
NEW ORLEANS -- We're about 25 minutes away from kickoff in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

I found it interesting that when Ohio State players came together in the end zone, Dan Herron was in the middle of the first row. And when the players raced onto the field for stretches, Herron led the way. He's certainly fired up for this one after the suspension saga. It also looked like quarterback Terrelle Pryor addressed the team right before it ran to the locker room.

All four suspended offensive starters -- Herron, Pryor, left tackle Mike Adams and receiver DeVier Posey -- worked with the first team in warmups.

The crowd breakdown has to be at least 60-40 in favor of Arkansas. Ohio State needs to win a road game tonight.

More to come from the Superdome.