Big Ten: Ryan Mallett

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It's well known that Minnesota needs to make major improvements in its passing game this fall and that the Gophers' young receivers need to develop. Luckily, they had a chance to learn from one of the best in the business this summer.

NFL star wideout Larry Fitzgerald used Minnesota's facilities to train this offseason, as he has done for the past several years. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowler was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to call the area home.

Though he played at Pitt and not his home-state school, Fitzgerald has become an honorary Gopher. He first approached former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster about working out on campus about seven years ago.

"It's been a dream come true for me," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com.

Fitzgerald began working out with other Minnesota natives in the NFL, like tight end John Carlson and receiver Eric Decker. Over the years, he has expanded his crew by inviting more players to join him. Among the pro receivers who showed up in Minneapolis this summer were the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the Washington Redskins' Andre Roberts and Tiquan Underwood of the Carolina Panthers. Fitzgerald decided they needed an NFL quarterback to throw to them, so he called up Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots.

"He’s created his own team," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "It’s kind of like the Larry Fitzgerald school. I think it’s neat that he does that, and that he happens to do it at our school."

Opening up their facilities to Fitzgerald and friends also brings benefits to the Gophers.

Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner spent time this summer throwing alongside Mallett. Like the one-time Michigan Wolverines and current Tom Brady backup, Leidner is a tall quarterback with a big arm, but he needs work on the finer points of the position. Leidner said he learned a lot from Mallett and that the two watched film together deep into the night this summer.

"We hung out a lot and went and watched film. Everything," Mallett told ESPN.com. "[Leidner] has a live arm. He's one to look out for.

"He's still young, but he's smart, he studies the game and he loves the game."

 
Leidner also got to throw to Fitzgerald and the other NFL receivers, which he called an invaluable experience. Young Gophers wideouts like sophomore Donovahn Jones also rushed out to the practice fields to catch balls next to the stars.

"It was just a good experience to see how NFL receivers work and see how they run their routes," Jones said. "Larry taught me a few key pointers to help me get more separation in my routes. That will help me."

Minnesota defensive backs Cedric Thompson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray got to try to cover Fitzgerald & Co. a couple of times this summer.

"You could tell they’re professionals," Thompson said. "They’re running 18-yard digs, and in college, you usually only run 12-yard digs. But their 18-yard digs look like 12-yard digs because they’re so fast. It’s amazing. It’s another level.

Fitzgerald is there to get himself ready for the grind of an NFL season. But the potential future Hall of Famer, who turns 31 at the end of this month, also takes time to mentor the college guys.

"I like to think I have a positive influence," he said. "I remember when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and my thought process was completely different than it is now.

"If they have questions for me, I try to answer them honestly. And they’ve all got my number if they want to talk to me during the season."

Though Fitzgerald didn't attend Minnesota, he has built close relationships with the program and follows the progress of the football team. He said he has great respect for Kill, whom he called "a tremendous man." He played golf with Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino this summer. He says he calls strength coach Eric Klein and assistant Chad Pearson throughout the year to catch up.

The Cardinals play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald said he's looking forward to reconnecting with everyone from the school.

The Gophers will welcome him back every summer for more training that benefits both him and their players.

"It certainly ain’t hurting any when people know Larry is doing his thing on our campus," Kill said.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 6, 2011
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Did you guys get your public forum gift bag? There's an iPod Touch in here.
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.
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
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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 -- 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 -- Jim Tressel remembers watching the lanky Michigan freshman quarterback warming up at the Big House before The Game in 2007.

"I mean, he could spin it," Tressel said of Ryan Mallett.

Tressel wasn't sure which Michigan signal caller Ohio State would face that day in Ann Arbor. Wolverines senior Chad Henne had been dealing with a shoulder injury, and Mallett had seen action in the previous 10 games.

Mallett relieved the banged-up Henne for a stretch against the Buckeyes and had three pass attempts, completing one, in a 14-3 Ohio State victory.

"It was kind of a sleeting, rainy [day]," Tressel said. "It wasn't a wonderful time for a guy to try to spin the ball out there. Ryan came in and played some. And for a freshman, his composure and command and so forth were outstanding."

When Mallett decided to leave Michigan following a coaching change, Tressel was happy.

"I don't know if that's an honorable emotion or not," Tressel said, "but I was. And as fate would have it, I guess I was being punished for that terrible thought because here we are."

Suffice to say Tressel isn't giddy about his reunion with Mallett on Tuesday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

"Now I get him as a [redshirt junior]," Tressel said. "And I get him with a great tight end and great running backs and an offensive line that hasn't missed a start and wide receivers who can make plays."

It'll be quite the challenge for Tressel's Buckeyes.
NEW ORLEANS -- Cameron Heyward plays football for moments like this.

It's not as if the Ohio State standout defensive lineman slacks off for non-marquee games. But he understands what it means to play on the big stage against top competition, and he'll do so for the final time as a Buckeye on Tuesday night against Arkansas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

"It's a very big game," Heyward said. "They have a very talented offensive line [quarterback Ryan Mallett] likes to sling the ball. One of my goals is always play my best in adverse situations, and we might have some adverse situations, so I'm looking forward to the challenge and ready to get after it."

Heyward entered the season tabbed as one of the nation's top defensive linemen. While his numbers aren't eye-popping -- 42 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery, 1 safety -- he had an undeniable presence on a strong Ohio State defensive line.

As a junior, Heyward's hallmark was his performances in big games. He made life miserable for USC's heralded offensive line in a loss to the Trojans, recording seven tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack. Two months later in Happy Valley, Heyward looked like the most dominant player on the field, recording 11 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks.

Heyward wasn't nearly as effective in Ohio State's loss to Wisconsin earlier this year, as the Badgers' offensive line imposed their will. He made a bigger impact in Ohio State's defense-driven win at Iowa, recording two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry.

The future NFL lineman sets his sights on another pro prospect in Mallett on Tuesday night.

"You always want to play against the best, and he's definitely one of the best quarterbacks we've played this year," Heyward said. "It's going to be tough, but you live for these situations to step up."

The setting for Heyward's final collegiate game adds to its significance. His late father, former NFL running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, played the first five of his 11 pro seasons with the Saints, where he was a fan favorite.

"It's been kind of neat seeing him here," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "People bump into him that knew his dad and maybe give him a little bit of a story about, 'I remember when ...' He knows he's got a tremendous challenge, and he will play every play the way he has for Ohio State for four years.

"And I think when he's done, he'll have an emotional reaction that he got to do that here in the city where his dad loved so much."
NEW ORLEANS -- The Ohio State Buckeyes won't have any trouble getting motivated for the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Pick a lane, and the Buckeyes are driven toward victory.

There's the incessant reminder of an 0-9 record against SEC teams in bowl games. Ohio State players are sick of hearing about it, especially those players who hail from SEC country.

[+] EnlargeBrian Rolle
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesBrian Rolle believes beating the Razorbacks "would be even bigger than winning last year's Rose Bowl."
Just how high would a win against Arkansas register for the southern Buckeyes?

"That would be even bigger than winning last year's Rose Bowl," said senior linebacker Brian Rolle, a native of Immokalee, Fla. "Just because it's an SEC and not faring so well. Having that win be [against] an SEC team makes it all the better. You hear about it so much. You hear people talk about the SEC being the most dominant conference, the best conference.

"Hopefully, we put a stop to that."

Rolle always hears the SEC chatter from his older brother, Willie, a die-hard Florida fan.

Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, who grew up near Atlanta, knows the feeling.

"I have a lot of friends who play for SEC teams," Heyward said. "To get this win would give me a little credibility."

Ohio State continues to search for credibility despite winning or sharing six consecutive Big Ten titles and appearing in six consecutive BCS bowl games. The Buckeyes enter the bowl at 11-1 and beat both of the Big Ten's bowl winners (Iowa and Illinois), but they lack a win against a current Top 25 team.

Arkansas' high-powered offense led by quarterback Ryan Mallett provides a good barometer for Ohio State's defense. The Silver Bullets rank in the top 10 nationally in just about every meaningful statistical category but got physically overwhelmed in a Oct. 16 loss to Wisconsin.

"We're salivating at this chance," Heyward said. "Everybody says there are a bunch of great defenses out here, but me personally, I think we have the best defense in the country, and we're going to get a chance to showcase it against one of the top offenses in the country."

Perhaps the strongest motivation for Ohio State is showing it can maintain its focus and play well despite the suspension saga involving quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four others. The Buckeyes boast a large and decorated senior class that has had to keep the team together despite the distractions.

"We're a very close and together team, so to have some of our players gone really would have hurt us," Heyward said. "The team rallied around those guys, they were going through some tough spots.

"But now we're just focused on winning this game."

Sugar Bowl keys for Ohio State

January, 3, 2011
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Let's look at three keys for Ohio State in Tuesday night's matchup against Arkansas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

1. Remain united: We've seen what happens to teams that enter bowl games with the wrong mind-set, and it ain't pretty. Ohio State has had to deal with the suspensions distraction for the past 10 days, and the fact that marquee players like Terrelle Pryor are involved doesn't help matters. But the Buckeyes have a large group of seniors and good overall leadership. They need those voices to be heard in the locker room and make sure the team focuses on the task at hand -- beating Arkansas and ending all the talk of 0-9 against the SEC in bowls.

2. Bend but don't break: Ryan Mallett and the Arkansas offense will move the ball and make plays in the pass game. But Ohio State is extremely stingy near the goal line, leading the Big Ten and tying for seventh nationally in red zone defense (70.4 percent scores). The Buckeyes have allowed only five passing touchdowns in the red zone and only 27 red zone opportunities. So it's imperative for Ohio State to make Arkansas work on every scoring drive and prevent explosion plays.

3. Get Boom and run game going: Pryor's performance is always important, but Dan Herron might be the key to this game for Ohio State. Herron was exceptional down the stretch in Big Ten play, establishing himself as one of the league's better featured running backs. Arkansas' defense is average against the run, ranking 66th nationally (157.4 ypg allowed), so Ohio State's offensive line will have opportunities to get Herron going, control the clock and keep Mallett on the sideline.
Arkansas has one of the most balanced offenses in the nation and is riding a six-game winning streak.

Ohio State is ranked near the top of the nation in just about all of the defensive categories, but is plenty potent offensively, too. Ohio State has won five in a row, averaging 39.2 points during that stretch.

They meet up on Tuesday night in New Orleans in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, a Big Ten-SEC matchup that’s sure to reverberate throughout both conferences.

SEC blogger Chris Low and Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg take a closer look at this battle of the Hogs and the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeArkansas running back Knile Davis
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonArkansas running back Knile Davis has rushed for 889 yards in his last six games.
Chris Low: Adam, I’ll start with a concession. The Eastern Division this season in the SEC was brutal. Unless Kentucky can defeat Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, four of the six teams will finish with losing records. The division champion, South Carolina, finished with five losses. So don’t judge Arkansas based on the way the bowl season started for the SEC with Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina all going down in flames. The Hogs were the second-best team in the league when the regular season ended. They can score with anybody in the country. They run it as well as they pass it, and they’re much improved defensively. The SEC came back strong on New Year’s Day. How did the Big Ten do? Better yet, how have the Buckeyes fared lately in bowl games against the SEC?

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, you know how much I'd love to make a witty comeback, a Cam Newton money reference or talk about the academic standards in the SEC, but I've got nothing. The Big Ten was embarrassed Saturday, especially in two of the three losses to the SEC. Michigan State's performance was the most shocking, while Michigan didn't show up again and Penn State let a mediocre Florida team hang around. I caught up with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany on Sunday, and he pretty much conceded defeat to the SEC, saying, "They have the strongest football-playing conference. We've had some competitive success, but they have the edge. Until we beat them, they deserve the edge." That pretty much sums up my thoughts. We all know Ohio State is 0-9 against the SEC in bowl games, a shocking stat. But Arkansas is a newcomer to a BCS bowl, while Ohio State has been there in each of the previous five seasons. How do you think the Hogs will handle the spotlight?

CL: Granted, Arkansas is new to the BCS, but the Hogs aren’t new to the spotlight. They faced Alabama when the Crimson Tide were No. 1 earlier this season and Auburn when the Tigers were a top-10 team. The Hogs know all about playing in big games. They beat four teams this season that finished in the Top 25 of the final BCS standings. To me, the most impressive thing about the Hogs’ season is the way they picked themselves up off the ground after that September home loss to Alabama, didn’t feel sorry for themselves and played their way back into BCS bowl contention. What about the Buckeyes? Any more “back to the future” suspensions coming?

AR: Yeah, how about that? Nothing like a little deferred punishment to add flavor to this game. I'm really interested to see how the suspended players and the rest of the Buckeyes respond after such a major distraction. It could bring them together for a critical game or you could see some fracturing, although I doubt it. Ohio State boasts a large and decorated senior class that will do all it can to make sure the players' heads are in the right place Tuesday night. People knock the Buckeyes for their national title game losses, but they know how to handle the BCS spotlight and showed it last year in Pasadena. The Buckeyes will need their seniors in a big way in this game, especially guys on the defensive side like Cameron Heyward, Brian Rolle, Ross Homan, Chimdi Chekwa and Jermale Hines. What's the biggest key for Arkansas' offense against one of the nation's top defenses?

CL: As long as those two Big Ten officiating crews that worked the New Era Pinstripe and Franklin American Mortgage Music City bowls don’t show up, the Hogs should be all right. Nah, seriously, the Hogs haven’t had any weaknesses offensively the second half of the season. They struggled to run the ball and protect leads earlier in the season, which cost them in the Alabama game. But the emergence of Knile Davis has been huge for Arkansas. He rushed for 1,183 yards, and 889 of those yards came in the last six games. At 220 pounds, he has breakaway speed, and can also grind out the tough yards. Ryan Mallett will spread the ball around, too. The Hogs have five different players with at least 500 receiving yards, including one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the country in D.J. Williams. My question is this: If this game is close in the fourth quarter, do the Ohio State players start thinking, “Here we go again?”

[+] EnlargeOhio State's Ross Homan, (51), Brian Rolle (36)
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteOhio State linebackers Ross Homan (51) and Brian Rolle (36) will be counted on to limit a fast start from the Arkansas passing game.
AR: Gotta love the Big Ten officials. I'm sure they'll be receiving a few letters from the state of Tennessee, or is all the hate mail directed at the Low household? SEC fans are, well, a little extreme. Ohio State has been better in the fourth quarter the last two seasons, and its recent struggles against the SEC have come earlier, in the second quarter. So it's important for Ohio State to prevent a fast start from the Hogs. The Buckeyes have been a slow-starting team this year, but they've been very good in the second half of games. Williams has to be a major concern, and Ohio State needs linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan to perform well. Let's talk about the Ohio State offense and the Arkansas defense. What must the Hogs do to slow down Terrelle Pryor and Dan Herron? Any tattoo artists on the Razorbacks' sideline?

CL: One of the first things the Hogs did this season was make sure they got more speed on the field defensively, and moving Anthony Leon from safety to linebacker helped them do that. Arkansas is good up front and will play several different players. Linebacker Jerry Franklin has quietly had an excellent season. The Hogs were much better at not giving up the big plays this season, which will be key in this game. They want to make the Buckeyes drive the ball and not give up anything easy. If they can hold Ohio State below 28 points, I think Arkansas wins this game. The Hogs don’t mind playing in shootout-type games. In fact, that’s their comfort level. And let’s face it: There’s nothing comfortable about facing an SEC team in a bowl game for Ohio State. The drought grows to 10 games and counting. Final: Arkansas 34, Ohio State 24.

AR: C-Low, I agree that the higher the score gets, the better Arkansas' chances are of winning the Sugar Bowl. But I think you're underestimating Ohio State's defense in this game. A lot of teams move the ball against the Buckeyes, but it's extremely tough to score touchdowns against them. This is the ultimate bend-but-don't-break defense. I see Mallett and the Hogs moving the ball between the 20s, but they'll have a tough time in the red zone. Dan Herron has a big game against a mediocre Arkansas rushing defense, and Ohio State ends The Streak. Final: Ohio State 24, Arkansas 21.
The Big Ten's final chance at redemption arrives in the Big Easy, as Ohio State takes on Arkansas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Let's take a quick look at the matchup.

WHO TO WATCH: Ohio State's five suspended players who will participate in the bowl, particularly starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, starting running back Dan Herron, starting left tackle Mike Adams and starting receiver DeVier Posey. They created a major distraction for the program, and all have vowed to make things right not only in the bowl game but by returning for their senior seasons. It will be interesting to see the mental states of players like Pryor, no stranger to scrutiny and a guy who stepped up in the 2010 Rose Bowl. Ohio State needs a strong showing from its offense, and Pryor and his teammates will be in the spotlight.

WHAT TO WATCH: Ohio State's secondary vs. Arkansas' pass-catchers. Despite several season-ending injuries, the Buckeyes' defensive backs have more than held their own, helping Ohio State rank sixth nationally in pass defense (156.3 ypg allowed). But the Buckeyes' secondary faces its toughest challenge of the season with Arkansas, which boasts five players with 500 receiving yards or more and four with 600 receiving yards or more. First-team All-Big Ten selections Chimdi Chekwa and Jermale Hines need strong performances against Ryan Mallett and his many targets.

WHY TO WATCH: The Buckeyes' suspension and the controversy surrounding the penalties certainly adds interest to this game. Will Ohio State have a united locker room as it tries to beat an SEC foe in a bowl game for the first time in 10 tries? The Buckeyes' decorated senior class needs to bring the team together for a critical game before the program enters an uncertain 2011 season. If you like exciting offense and polished defense, this is the game for you as expert playcaller Bobby Petrino tries to find holes in Ohio State's D. The Big Ten's disastrous New Year's Day performance also adds intrigue, as Ohio State tries to redeem its league a bit.

PREDICTION: Ohio State 24, Arkansas 21. It certainly could go the other way, but I expect Ohio State's seniors to bring the team together and go out with a victory despite all of the controversy. Pryor makes enough plays when it counts and Herron provides a lift in the run game. Mallett moves Arkansas between the 20s but Ohio State limits the Hogs' scoring opportunities. Expect a big game from Cameron Heyward as Ohio State ends its bowl slide against the SEC.
The main attraction at the Allstate Sugar Bowl pits Arkansas star quarterback Ryan Mallett against the nation's No. 2 defense in Ohio State.

Ohio State's offense has other ideas.

Dane Sanzenbacher
D. Jay Talbott/Icon SMIReceiver Dane Sanzenbacher says the Buckeyes' offense wants to do its part to keep Ryan Mallet & Co. off the field.
If the Buckeyes have their way on offense, Mallett will spend much of the game watching from the sideline. Ohio State wants to chew up clock and mount long, sustained drives that will limit Mallett's effectiveness in the game.

"As an offense, we want to be able to control the game," Buckeyes star receiver Dane Sanzenbacher told me this week. "In games like this where the other team has an explosive offense, one of the best things we can do is hold the ball and keep that other offense off the field. Doing that while staying in our own scheme is always our goal."

Ohio State dominated possession time in its Rose Bowl win against Oregon in January, holding the ball for 41:37 in a 26-17 victory. To be fair, Oregon ranks near the bottom of the FBS in possession time, but Ohio State repeatedly moved the chains, racking up 26 first downs and holding the ball for 11:24 in the final quarter. The dynamic Ducks attack finished with just 12 first downs and 260 yards in the game.

The Buckeyes have taken a similar approach this season on offense, leading the Big Ten and ranking sixth nationally in average possession time (32:45). Ohio State won the possession time in all but one of its games (Indiana held the ball for 30:25) and held a substantial edge against the nation's No. 6 offense in Michigan (34:15-25:44).

"We know our defense is good," Sanzenbacher said, "but we want to do our part to help them out."
The Big Ten started to repair its national reputation by going 4-3 in postseason play last year with two wins in BCS bowls and four victories against top 15 opponents.

The league's next challenge: keep the momentum going.

It won't be easy.

"I think it's going to be really challenging," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told me recently. "We've got great matchups. We play the SEC, great league; Big 12, great league. I think it's an uphill. Most people looking at it see it as an uphill."

Big Ten teams are viewed as underdogs in most of the matchups, and there are no gimmes.

The league faces five teams ranked in the final BCS standings: No. 3 TCU, No. 8 Arkansas, No. 12 Missouri, No. 16 Alabama and No. 21 Mississippi State. While the Big Ten boasts three teams in the top 10 -- No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 9 Michigan State -- no other squad is anywhere near the rankings.

Three Big Ten teams -- Penn State, Illinois and Northwestern -- face bowl opponents playing in their home states. Penn State meets Florida in Tampa at the Outback Bowl, Illinois takes on Baylor in Houston at the Texas Bowl and Northwestern meets Texas Tech in Dallas at the inaugural TicketCity Bowl.

And that's not all.

"We're playing the defending national champion in Alabama," Delany said. "I think that's the best 3-loss team in the country. I look at the challenge with TCU, I think they're a favorite in that game. It's unbelievable, but it just represents how good they are. A lot of people say they may have the best defense and may have the most NFL defensive players on their team. I look at Arkansas, they probably have the best pro-style quarterback [Ryan Mallett] in the game, great offense.

"All across the board, the challenges we have are significant. They should get our competitive juices going. I don't think I've seen a stronger or better set of opponents than what we're facing this year."

Delany isn't sandbagging, folks. The lineup is brutal, especially compared to what other leagues (ahem, Big 12) are facing.

I'm not too confident about the Big Ten's chances this bowl season. The league really needs its best teams -- Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State -- to perform like it in January.

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