- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
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.
"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."
1640dAdam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett