NEW ORLEANS -- Arkansas knew exactly how it was going to start the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Throughout postseason practice, the team had worked on the opening play, in which quarterback Ryan Mallett faked a handoff to running back Knile Davis and then hit receiver Joe Adams on a seam down the middle.
"We've been working on that for a long time in practice, and it worked pretty much every time," receiver Jarius Wright said.
When they lined up for the first snap from scrimmage, the Razorbacks saw the exact coverage they hoped Ohio State would present. The play went off as scripted until the throw, when Mallett's pass to a streaking Adams was just a bit off. Had Adams been hit in stride, Arkansas might have begun the game with a touchdown.
Instead, it served as a sign of things to come. The crisp, efficient scoring machine down the stretch of the regular season sputtered early and late in the Superdome. That's why Arkansas had to battle back from a huge first-half deficit, and why its manic second-half comeback effort fell just short in a 31-26 defeat.
"We couldn't have played any worse in the first half," defensive end Jake Bequette said. "We played our butts off in the second half, but it wasn't enough."
Big Easy described Ohio State's offense in the first half. The Buckeyes rolled out to a 28-7 lead and had their choice between long Dan Herron runs or Terrelle Pryor passes to wide-open receivers. They had 338 yards at halftime and converted six of their eight third downs.
Big Ten teams are supposed to be slower than SEC squads, but Ohio State ran a high-tempo, no-huddle offense that surprised the Razorbacks. On one third down, three Arkansas defenders were still jogging off the field when Pryor took the snap. Jim Tressel had turned into Chip Kelly overnight.
Arkansas players admitted they weren't prepared for that. But at halftime, they adjusted. Ohio State had just 108 yards and one field goal in the second half.
"In the first half, we couldn't get our plays in and couldn't get our checks in time for the snap," linebacker Jerico Nelson said. "We never really saw them do that [on film] and we didn't really practice for it. In the second half, we did a better job of communicating the call and keeping things simple. We played to our keys and moved around faster."
That defensive turnaround set the stage for the comeback attempt. But the offense couldn't quite pull it off.
A Razorbacks team that averaged 42.5 points per game in the final six regular-season outings managed only two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl. The last two drives began on the Ohio State 38 and the Buckeyes' 18, but neither ended in points. Mallett threw for 277 yards but needed 47 attempts and barely completed half of them.
A normally reliable receiving corps dropped six passes, many of them in crucial situations. Head coach Bobby Petrino said the 38-day layoff might have contributed to the problem.
"Our last game against LSU was at the end of November," offensive lineman Ray Dominguez said. "We were trying to get the rust off this week in practice, but we could see a little bit of it. During the first half, it really showed."
Ohio State also gave a different look with its defensive front, doing more moving and stunting on first and second down than the Razorbacks said they had seen on film. It took another halftime adjustment to get used to that.
Arkansas played like a team making its first BCS appearance and its first Sugar Bowl since 1980, while Ohio State looked like the one that makes BCS trips an annual rite. The Hogs had six penalties to two for the Buckeyes, and that included a few false start miscues despite having the crowd and the noise heavily in their favor.
"Nerves had a lot to do with it," Wright said. "We didn't calm down until the second half, and by then it was a little bit too late."
Arkansas had the perfect start scripted but couldn't execute. Then it had a miraculous comeback story written. The ending just didn't work.