NCF Nation: 2011 Sugar Bowl

Allstate Sugar Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Michigan Wolverines (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech Hokies (11-2)

Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Michigan take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: The Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup elicited some groans from around the country, but Michigan fans were all smiles. Michigan is back in a BCS bowl for the first time in five years as the program turns a page on one of its darkest periods.

A victory in New Orleans would give Michigan its first BCS bowl win since the 2000 Orange Bowl.

First-year coach Brady Hoke and his staff deserve much of the credit for Michigan’s turnaround, as the team not only improved its win total by three from 2010, but made significant strides on defense after historically poor results the previous three seasons. Michigan’s defense improved from 110th nationally last season to 18th this year, and it did so without any first-team All-Big Ten selections. Defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen lead the way for Michigan, which must contain Hokies junior running back David Wilson, the nation’s No. 7 rusher.

The defense carried the Wolverines for much of the season, but the offense came on strong late behind quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who both rank among the nation’s top 40 rushers. Michigan still used many spread elements with the speedy Robinson at the helm, although offensive coordinator Al Borges mixed things up quite a bit and showed plenty of creativity with his calls. Virginia Tech’s defense provides a good test for Michigan, which has scored 28 points or more in its 10 victories.

Hoke earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors and has made a significant impact on Michigan’s recruiting for 2012. A Sugar Bowl win would cap what has been a remarkable first season for Hoke in Ann Arbor.

Virginia Tech take from ACC blogger Heather Dinich: This was easily the most shocking selection in the ACC -- if not the country -- as Virginia Tech is coming off its poorest performance of the year in a 38-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game. It was the program’s worst margin of defeat since joining the ACC, but the Hokies still leapfrogged several other BCS bowl-worthy teams. This the first time the ACC has had two teams play in BCS bowls, but it’s going to be a difficult challenge for the Hokies, who struggled against Clemson’s offense and will have similar challenges against Michigan.

The Wolverines have an even more athletic quarterback than Clemson in Denard Robinson. Offensively, the Hokies will have to get quarterback Logan Thomas back on track after he threw two picks and lost a fumble in the title game. The Hokies scored a combined 13 points in two losses to Clemson, and have no marquee wins on their nonconference schedule. They are also notorious for coming up short against nonconference opponents on the big stage. In three trips to the Orange Bowl in the past four years, Virginia Tech has only a win against Cincinnati.

This will be another chance for coach Frank Beamer to change the perception of his program on the national level as one that can win outside of the ACC and Big East, too. Virginia Tech ended the regular season on a seven-game winning streak and was ranked No. 5 in the country heading into the ACC title game, but the Hokies allowed Clemson 450 total yards, and ACC Player of the Year David Wilson had only 32 yards on 11 carries. Still, Virginia Tech will bring the nation’s No. 8 scoring defense to New Orleans, and odds are it's going to need it.
Ryan MallettMatthew Stockman/Getty ImagesRyan Mallett was pressured all night as the Arkansas offensive line gave up four sacks.
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.

[+] EnlargeBobby Petrino
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesBobby Petrino may have a tainted reputation, but that likely won't stop a football program from requesting his services next season.
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.
NEW ORLEANS -- Arkansas is participating in its first-ever BCS game. But normalcy seems to be the prevailing theme for the Razorbacks.

While Allstate Sugar Bowl opponent Ohio State dealt with the swirls of controversy regarding the suspensions of five players and its decision to let them play in the bowl, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino must have just smiled. His team has stayed out of the headlines and has arguably received less media attention than any BCS team so far this postseason.

That's just fine with Petrino. Let the Buckeyes hog the spotlight in this one. His Hogs can just go to work. Petrino is trying to keep as much of a regular-season routine as possible, including moving the team into a new hotel on Monday night to simulate its Friday night in-season experience.

"I think our players have done a nice job of keeping their focus and doing a good job in meetings, doing a good job on the practice field," Petrino said Monday morning at the head coaches' news conference.

Petrino's half hour in front of the media was much drier than that of Ohio State's Jim Tressel, an accomplishment that's not easy to produce. Petrino is no stranger to bowl-week distractions. At Louisville, his constant dalliances with other jobs -- once memorably meeting with LSU on his way to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl -- created off-the-field intrigue. But Petrino recently signed a seven-year contract extension, and even with NFL jobs popping open this week, he's mostly out of the coaching rumor mill.

"It's great," he said. "We wanted to try to get it done as quick as we possibly could, so we all understood the commitments that are there on both sides. It's been a lot of fun to know that we're going to continue to build this program the way that we want to."

Arkansas might not be generating a ton of buzz, but the Hogs played as well as anybody down the stretch while winning their final six games and averaging more than 42 points per game in the process. This is the first time in the BCS, but the team played at No. 1 Auburn this year and in high-profile games against Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.

"We go on the road and all the big stages that we play on, all the loud crowds and hostile environments, I think certainly puts you on the same type of stage that we're going to be on [Tuesday] night," Petrino said. "As long as we can get to our comfort zone as quick as possible within the game and say, 'Hey, we know what this is about, we've been here before, it's just a different team,' I think we'll execute and play well."

Petrino said a Sugar Bowl win would mean the most for the seniors and give the Razorbacks a chance to enter next season ranked high in the polls. And perhaps they'll start to make these types of achievements and expectations feel normal.

Sugar Bowl keys for Ohio State

January, 3, 2011
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.