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January 3, 2011
NEW ORLEANS -- S. E. C.
In fact, those letters may evoke even more cringes in Columbus. After all, beating Michigan has become almost second nature to the Buckeyes, who have won seven in a row over their archrivals.
Indeed, defeating the Wolverines has become so common that the traditional golden pants trinkets presented to Ohio State players to commemorate victories over Michigan were among items sold by some players. An NCAA investigation into the selling of memorabilia has resulted in six players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, being suspended for the first five games of next season. While the players are eligible for Tuesday night's Sugar Bowl game against Arkansas, rumors are swirling that coach Jim Tressel may bench them for as much as a half.
That would only add to an already-difficult situation. For Ohio State, wins over SEC opponents are as rare as unicorns. Ohio State is 0-9 in bowl games against SEC teams, including losses to Florida and LSU in back-to-back BCS national championship games, losses that resulted in chants of "S-E-C, S-E-C" raining down from Southerners all too eager to gloat. In addition, the SEC went 3-0 against the Big Ten on New Year's Day, a day in which the Big Ten went 0-5.
Tuesday night, the Buckeyes have the chance to silence critics and end their streak of futility against the SEC when they face the high-scoring Razorbacks.
"I know personally I have lost three in a row against the SEC," Tressel said last week. "I'm not tired of hearing about it; it's a reminder to me of just how good the SEC is in football. We are playing another great one in Arkansas."
Ohio State remains among the elite of college football. But its problems against the SEC stand out like a dented fender on a Mercedes.
"We definitely know our history against the SEC in bowl games; we definitely use that as a motivational tool," Buckeyes linebacker Ross Homan said. "This is the present, the here and now. We can't control what has happened in the past. But we're ready for this game and looking forward to it."
Added defensive end Cameron Heyward: "It just makes us push even harder. "You see guys in here working extra, trying to get that extra boost and advantage."
The SEC's bowl dominance of Ohio State began with Alabama's 35-6 thrashing of the Buckeyes in the 1978 Sugar Bowl. Later, the Buckeyes fell to Auburn in the 1989 Hall of Fame Bowl, lost to Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee in the '92, '94 and '95 Citrus bowls, respectively, and to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl in 2000 and '01.
But the harsh criticism came after the heavily favored Buckeyes were destroyed by Florida 41-14 in the '06 BCS national championship game in Glendale, Ariz. The next year, the Buckeyes lost the championship game to LSU 38-24 in New Orleans.
Since then, the Buckeyes have endured taunts and jabs on talk shows and message boards. Their style of football has been derided. They've been called inferior. They've been labeled slow and plodding, and dismissed as unable to keep up with "SEC speed."
Some of that criticism was answered last season, when the Buckeyes posted a 26-17 Rose Bowl victory over Oregon, which can run with any team in the country.
"People said we couldn't win a big game," Homan said. "That was an unbelievably big game. And look where Oregon is right now."
Oregon will face SEC champion Auburn in the BCS national championship game.
But the Pacific Northwest is on the other side of the country from the Southeast, so SEC fans aren't likely to be convinced. Respect will come only from beating an SEC team.
"It's going to be not only the best offense we've faced all year, but one of the best players [Mallett] we've played all year," Homan said. "He gets their offense clicking and makes incredible throws. It's a very good offense. They're not just a passing team. They have a strong running game. It will be a great challenge for the defense."
Arkansas averages 37.7 points and has scored at least 31 points in 10 games. Mallett has thrown for 3,592 yards and 30 touchdowns. Davis has rushed for 1,183 yards and 13 touchdowns. Tight end D.J. Williams is one of the best in the nation at his position, and the Razorbacks receiving corps is teeming with big-play threats. Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Cobi Hamilton each have caught touchdown passes on plays that covered at least 85 yards.
Mallett and Co. could create major problems for the Buckeyes, who have only 19 sacks, an uncharacteristically low total for them.
"I think we've done well in not letting quarterbacks break tackles when we get to them," linebacker Brian Rolle said. "The [sack] numbers are kind of low because guys have been getting the ball out fast. But you know what kind of chaos our defensive line can create. That just shows we have to tighten things up on the back end. If we're not getting sacks, I put that more on the back end."
The Buckeyes haven't faced a passing team nearly as good as Arkansas, but they insist they're up for the challenge.
"They're definitely a very good team," Homan said. "But we've played good teams with great athletes and good speed. It's nothing out of the ordinary."
Ohio State's defense has been extraordinary. Five players -- Homan, Heyward, Rolle, cornerback Chimdi Chekwa and free safety Jermale Hines -- were named first-team All-Big Ten, and the defense has been up to almost every challenge it has faced this season.
Only two opponents have scored more than 20 points against the Buckeyes. They allowed 31 to Wisconsin, but one touchdown came via a kickoff return. They also allowed 24 points to Miami, but allowed one kickoff and one punt to be returned for scores.
The defense, which ranks third in the nation in points allowed, is one of the best the Buckeyes have fielded in their 10 seasons under coach Jim Tressel.
"I think this defense is extremely good," Heyward said. "If there was an award for the best defense, I think they would definitely give it to us. We have a lot of good players at various positions and we work well as one. It really shows on the field
"I have the utmost confidence in our guys. I know the way they study and work, and that leads me to believe in my guys."
But is it good enough and fast enough to contain Arkansas' offense and finally post a win over an SEC team? Seeing is believing, and no doubt, those in the Southeast won't believe it until they see it.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Arkansas rush offense vs. Ohio State rush defense: Most of the attention paid to Arkansas' offense is given to the passing game, but the Razorbacks have a bona-fide rushing threat in RB Knile Davis. A powerful sophomore, Davis has rushed for 1,183 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. He also has breakaway speed and has scored on touchdown runs of 71, 70 and 62 yards. All five of his 100-yard rushing games have come in the second half of the season, and he exceeded 150 rushing yards in each of the last three games. Broderick Green and Ronnie Wingo are capable when Davis needs a rest. Ohio State is fourth in the nation in run defense. The Buckeyes have held 10 of 12 opponents to 120 or fewer rushing yards and have allowed just nine rushing touchdowns. LB Brian Rolle leads the Buckeyes with 70 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. Edge: Ohio State.
Arkansas pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense: Ryan Mallett is a hulking, cannon-armed quarterback who has passed for more than 300 yards in nine games this season. He is fifth in the nation in passing yards per game and has thrown for 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He distributes the ball well, with six players having between 27 and 49 receptions. TE D.J. Williams is among the best in the nation at his position. The loss of star WR Greg Childs to injury was a setback, but receiver remains a position of strength. Jarius White, Joe Adams and Cobi Hamilton all average better than 16 yards per catch and have touchdowns that covered at least 85 yards. Ohio State has allowed 156.3 passing yards per game to rank fourth in the country. The Buckeyes have allowed just seven passing touchdowns and have grabbed 18 interceptions. CB Chimdi Chekwa and FS Jermale Hines are All-Big Ten selections. The Buckeyes have allowed fewer than 200 passing yards and have at least one interception in each of the past eight games. While the Hogs have allowed 24 sacks, Ohio State's pass rush has been feeble; the Buckeyes have just 18 sacks. Edge: Arkansas.
Ohio State rush offense vs. Arkansas rush defense: Operating behind one of the best lines in the Big Ten, Ohio State averages 219.7 rushing yards per game to rank 14th nationally. T Mike Adams, G Justin Boren and C Mike Brewster all earned all-conference acclaim. They helped RB Dan Herron rush for 1,068 yards and 15 touchdowns. Terrelle Pryor is among the best rushing quarterbacks and has gained 639 yards, while backup RB Brandon Saine is a big-play threat who has produced 312 yards. Arkansas has been gashed for big yardage at times. Auburn QB Cameron Newton had 188 rushing yards against the Hogs. Mark Ingram of Alabama rushed for 157 yards against Arkansas. And Mississippi State ran for 262 yards against the Hogs. LB Jerry Franklin leads Arkansas with 93 tackles. Edge: Ohio State.
Ohio State pass offense vs. Arkansas pass defense: The Buckeyes' strength is in the run, but they have an effective, though sometimes inconsistent, passing game. Pryor has completed 65.8 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,551 yards and 25 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. He's thrown for more than 200 yards in eight games. A point of caution: He had fewer than 200 passing yards in two of the final three regular-season games and threw five touchdown passes and four interceptions in that span. WRs Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey are an excellent duo; they have combined for 102 catches and 16 touchdowns. But no other wide receiver has a significant number of receptions. The Buckeyes have allowed 22 sacks, which is a high number considering Pryor's mobility. That could be a problem against Arkansas, which is sixth in the nation with 37 sacks. Three players have at least six sacks for the Razorbacks, and All-SEC E Jake Bequette leads with seven. Overall, Arkansas is 16th in the country in pass defense, allowing an average of 182.3 yards per game, with 11 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. The Hogs were especially effective in November, when they allowed just one touchdown pass in four games. Edge: Arkansas.
Arkansas special teams vs. Ohio State special teams: Adams provides Arkansas with big-play ability on punt returns, but the kickoff returners have been mediocre. The kickoff coverage has been abysmal, the punt coverage solid. K Zach Hocker is 13-of-16 on the season, including 5-of-7 from beyond 40 yards; his long is from 51. P Dylan Breeding averages 42.4 yards and has dropped 14 inside the 20. Ohio State's Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry are dangerous on kickoff returns, and Hall also is a good punt returner. The coverage teams can be shaky, especially on punts. K Devin Barclay has converted 19-of-22 field-goal tries, with a long of 48 yards. But he has missed from 21 and 32 yards. P Ben Buchanan averages 41.2 yards, with 13 killed inside the 20. Edge: Arkansas
Arkansas coaches vs. Ohio State coaches: Bobby Petrino turned a solid Louisville program into a national power and appears on the verge of duplicating that feat in Fayetteville. In three seasons with the Hogs, he has 23 victories, including 18 in the past two seasons. The Razorbacks are young and could be even better in '11 if Mallett returns for his senior season. Ohio State has been tremendous under Jim Tressel, who has 105 victories as the Buckeyes' coach. Tressel has led the Buckeyes to three national championship games and one national title. He's also led the Buckeyes to at least a share of six consecutive Big Ten championships and seven overall. Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock is considered one of the best in the nation. Edge: Ohio State
X-factor: It's old news now, but Pryor, Posey and Herron are among six Buckeyes who violated NCAA rules by selling memorabilia. Five of the players, including Pryor, Posey and Herron, have been suspended for the first five games of next season. But will that scandal have an effect on the final game of this season? We've seen it happen before in this game (Alabama in '08, for example), when negative attention seemed to cause a team to play below its usual standards. For those not buying into mind games and more into on-field issues, this game could come down to red zone performance. Arkansas has a 91 percent success rate in red zone offense. The Razorbacks have scored on 42 of 46 red zone chances, with 33 of those resulting in touchdowns. Meanwhile, Ohio State has a 70 percent success rate in red zone defense, which ranks ninth nationally. Ohio State has limited opponents to 19 scores (14 touchdowns, five field goals) on 27 red zone opportunities.
Arkansas will win if: Obviously, avoiding turnovers is vital. Mallett threw three interceptions in a loss to Alabama and the Razorbacks committed three turnovers in a loss to Auburn. A productive passing game is needed, too. But the Razorbacks also need to establish a successful running game to keep Ohio State's defense off-balance.
Ohio State will win if: Although Arkansas' passing game is a big threat, Ohio State must contain Davis and the Razorbacks' running game. The Buckeyes gave up 184 yards rushing yards to Wisconsin in their only loss. If Arkansas is able to mount a sustained running attack, passing opportunities will open up for Mallett. A strong pass rush is vital, too. Offensively, the Buckeyes must establish the run with Herron and Pryor. Pryor also needs to have an efficient passing game. He completed only half his passes and had an interception in the Buckeyes' lone loss.
Gerry Ahern: Ohio State 28, Arkansas 17
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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