First of all, let me get something off my chest.
This morning, ESPN college football analyst Jesse Palmer foisted the idea that Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel should bench his five soon-to-be suspended players to send a message of integrity to the rest of the world.
Palmer’s assertion is laughable on several levels, not the least of which is the fact that he played quarterback in the SEC – the same conference that has turned a blind eye to what has transpired at Auburn with quarterback Cam Newton. Secondly, if Palmer had bothered to do even an ounce of research before talking out of his posterior, he would know that Tressel has already extracted promises from Terrelle Pryor, Boom Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas that they will return next season to face the music.
Could any or all of those players go back on that promise? Absolutely. But that would be on them, not Tressel. I look for Pryor, Herron, Posey and Adams to each be in the starting lineup tonight and I expect them to play well. As for what happens after that, we’ll see.
Now to the game itself …
If Ohio State is ever to exorcise its postseason SEC demons, a Sugar Bowl date with Arkansas is perhaps the best scenario for which the Buckeyes could have hoped.
Not that the Razorbacks are a pushover. They’re not. It’s just that there are at least three other SEC teams that would have presented many more problems for an OSU program that seeks to put an end to its nine-game bowl losing streak against what many consider the biggest, baddest conference this side of the NFL.
Auburn is the No. 1 team in the nation with Heisman Trophy winner Newton, and the Tigers appear to be college football’s team of destiny in 2010. (At least until they are forced to forfeit that crown sometime in the future.) Meanwhile, LSU has two losses on its ledger, but it seems head coach Les Miles has the kind of mystical lucky streak going that only fools and cockeyed optimists would bet against.
And then there is last year’s national champion Alabama. The Crimson Tide lost three times this season, including a three-point defeat at LSU and a one-point heartbreaker against Auburn, but you wouldn’t know that by the way they punked Michigan State on New Year’s Day. No team was really itching to play Nick Saban’s team, and its Capital One Bowl appearance may well be the springboard to another title run in 2011.
That leaves Arkansas, which got over its own proverbial hump with a 31-23 win over LSU in the final regular-season game of the year. That outcome dropped the Tigers to the Jan. 7 Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M and gave the Razorbacks their first Sugar Bowl appearance since 1980 and their first-ever BCS game.
The Hogs are led by third-year head coach Bobby Petrino, who has been recognized as one of the most innovative play-calling minds for much of the last decade. Petrino came into his own at Louisville during the mid-2000s when his Cardinals routinely finished among the nation’s top passing teams, and that magic touch has followed him to Fayetteville.
The season before Petrino took over at Arkansas, the Razorbacks’ pass offense ranked a lowly 112th nationally. They improved all the way to 23rd in the coach’s first season in 2008, rose to 10th last season and currently sit at No. 3 this year.
Piloting Petrino’s aero squadron is junior quarterback Ryan Mallett, the Big Ten expatriate from Michigan who joined the 2007 exodus from Ann Arbor when Rich Rodriguez took over as head coach. If you have never seen the 6-6, 238-pound Mallett play, think of a slightly taller, slightly better Chad Henne, John Navarre, Drew Henson, Todd Collins or almost any of the statue-like QBs who populated the Michigan roster throughout most of former coach Lloyd Carr’s tenure.
There is little doubt Mallett is the most polished quarterback operating the most NFL-like offense the Buckeyes have seen in quite some time. In only two seasons with Petrino, Mallett has thrown for more than 7,200 yards and exactly 60 touchdowns.
Numbers like those usually make for a lot of sleepless nights for opposing defensive coordinators. So, too, the fact that this year’s Razorbacks are not a one-trick pony. They also have a 1,000-yard rusher in tailback Knile Davis and have been known to line up and blow the opposing team off the line of scrimmage.
So how will Jim Heacock slow down the rampaging bull that is the Arkansas offense? Well, this isn’t exactly Heacock’s first rodeo. During his tenure as Tressel’s defensive coordinator, Heacock has been pretty successful at devising schemes to take care of multifaceted opponents.
You need look into the history books no further than last year’s Rose Bowl when Oregon flew in as 3½-point favorites on the strength of an attack that ranked No. 7 nationally in scoring. A team that had averaged 42.8 points during its last six regular-season games was smothered in a 26-17 win by the Buckeyes that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score might have indicated.
Of course, the argument could be made that Oregon was not a prototypical offense with dual-threat quarterback Jeremiah Masoli under center. OK, then. Let’s take a look at how the Ohio State defense has fared during the Tressel era against pure pocket passers such as Mallett.
During the 2002 national championship run, the Buckeyes faced two such quarterbacks – one in the season opener, the other in the title game.
Texas Tech QB Kliff Kingsbury managed to throw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in the ’02 Pigskin Classic against Mark Dantonio’s defensive scheme, but many of those yards and two of the scores came well after the 45-21 OSU victory had been decided. Kingsbury, who went on to lead the nation in passing yardage that season, was intercepted once and sacked seven times by the Buckeyes.
In the BCS National Championship Game at the end of that 2002 season, the Buckeyes faced quarterback Ken Dorsey, who had led his Miami (Fla.) team to 34 consecutive wins. Dorsey managed to throw for 296 yards and a pair of scores, but he threw two picks and was nearly pounded into submission by a relentless OSU pass rush that sacked him four times and hurried him on countless other occasions.
The result was a 31-24 double-overtime win and the national championship trophy for the Buckeyes.
During the first three games of the following season, the Buckeyes faced two more dropback passers. Washington’s Cody Pickett and Philip Rivers of North Carolina State combined to throw 101 times for a combined 570 yards and four touchdowns, but the Buckeyes sacked each QB three times and chalked up important nonconference victories.
By 2005, Dantonio was gone but the familiar beat went on. Josh Betts of Miami (Ohio) and Brady Quinn of Notre Dame each finished among the country’s top 15 passers that season but neither found much success against Ohio State.
Each was sacked five times by the Buckeyes and held well below his season passing average. Betts threw for 250 yards in a 34-14 season-opening loss to OSU before averaging 292.8 yards for the remainder of the year. Meanwhile, Quinn totaled 286 yards through the air during his team’s 34-20 loss to the Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl, but the Fighting Irish QB averaged 330.3 yards against all other opponents in 2005.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Ohio State hasn’t always been perfect against classic dropback passers. USC’s Mark Sanchez threw for 172 yards and four touchdowns during his team’s 35-3 drubbing of the Buckeyes in 2008.
More often than not, however, OSU is successful against pro-style attacks because it usually employs the same kind of defensive strategy against stationary big-armed quarterbacks – take them out of their comfort zone by taking away their running game.
In the aforementioned games, Texas Tech, Miami (Fla.), Washington, North Carolina State, Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame averaged 45.0 yards rushing and a puny 1.6 yards on 165 carries. And those performances came against some pretty fair running backs including Willis McGahee of Miami (Fla.), T.A. McLendon of N.C. State, Brandon Murphy of Miami (Ohio) and Darius Walker of Notre Dame, each of whom enjoyed 1,000-yard seasons during their college careers.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of how Ohio State operates in big games knows the Buckeyes will try to shut down Davis from the get-go and then turn up the pressure on Mallett as the game progresses. That would seem to be a prudent way to defend against the Razorbacks since they averaged 160.8 yards rushing in their 10 victories this season but only 101.0 in their two losses.
Mallett will undoubtedly get his yards and probably add to his touchdown total. Extending the SEC’s dominance over Ohio State is quite another thing entirely.
Most observers believe the performance of Pryor will mean the difference between winning and losing for the Buckeyes. There is no doubt that Pryor will have to play well, but a stellar performance by his defense is even more important.
If the Buckeyes defend against Arkansas the way they defended Oregon in the Rose Bowl, there is no doubt Ohio State comes home victorious. I think they will and that’s why I think the Buckeyes get the SEC monkey off their backs and come home with a hard-fought and well-earned 30-24 victory.
OHIO STATE-ARKANSAS TIDBITS
** This will be the first-ever meeting between Ohio State and Arkansas. It is also the first-ever meeting between OSU head coach Jim Tressel and Arkansas boss Bobby Petrino, who is in his third season as head coach of the Razorbacks.
** Tressel has a lifetime 28-10 record in the postseason, including 5-4 in bowl games (4-3 in BCS contests) while at Ohio State. He was 23-6 in Division I-AA playoff games while at Youngstown State, including national championships in 1991, ’93 and ’94.
** Petrino is 3-2 all-time in bowl games, including 1-0 with the Razorbacks. Arkansas took a 20-17 overtime victory over East Carolina last January in the 2010 Liberty Bowl. Petrino was 2-2 during a four-year tenure at Louisville between 2003-06, including 1-0 in BCS games. That win was a 24-13 upset of No. 13 Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl.
** Petrino is only the third coach to lead two programs to a BCS bowl game. The others are Urban Meyer (Utah and Florida) and Nick Saban (LSU and Alabama).
** Both head coaches are sons of head coaches. Tressel played quarterback for his father, Lee, at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. Petrino played quarterback for his father, Bob Sr., at Carroll College in Helena, Mont.
** In overall meetings, the Buckeyes are 7-11-2 against teams currently in the Southeastern Conference. OSU is 3-0 vs. Kentucky, 3-1 vs. Vanderbilt, 1-1-1 vs. LSU, 0-1-1 vs. Auburn, 0-1 vs. Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, 0-2 vs. South Carolina and 0-3 vs. Alabama. The Buckeyes have never faced Mississippi, Mississippi State or Arkansas.
** Arkansas is 1-5 all-time against the Big Ten with the only victory a 38-7 win over Northwestern in 1981. The Wildcats were 0-11 that season. The Razorbacks are 0-2 vs. Wisconsin and 0-1 vs. Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan.
** Tressel is 0-3 all-time against SEC schools. The losses have each come in bowl games – 31-28 to South Carolina in the 2002 Outback Bowl, 41-14 to Florida in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game and 38-24 to LSU in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game.
** Petrino has never faced a Big Ten school during his seven seasons as a college head coach.
** Last year’s Rose Bowl victory over Oregon snapped a three-game postseason losing streak for the Buckeyes who are 19-22 overall in bowl games.
** Arkansas is 12-22-3 overall in the postseason. The Razorbacks’ most recent bowl victory was last year’s overtime win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl, but the program has lost 12 of its last 15 postseason games.
** OSU is making its third appearance in the Sugar Bowl and has lost two of those three games. The Buckeyes dropped a 35-6 decision to Alabama in 1978 and a 31-14 verdict to Florida State in 1998, and won a 24-14 game over Texas A&M in 1999.
** Arkansas is making its sixth Sugar Bowl appearance. The Razorbacks are 1-4 in their previous five appearances with their only win a 16-2 upset of No. 4 Georgia in the 1969 game. Their four losses were 10-3 to Alabama in 1962, 17-13 to Mississippi in 1963, 27-22 to Ole Miss in 1970 and 24-9 to Alabama in 1980.
** Something has to give since the Buckeyes are 0-9 all-time in bowl games against the SEC and the Razorbacks are 0-3 in bowl games against the Big Ten.
** The team with the higher BCS ranking is only 7-5 in Sugar Bowl games, and the higher seed has lost the last two in a row. No. 6 Utah scored a 31-17 upset over fourth-ranked Alabama in 2009 and No. 5 Florida rolled to a 51-24 win over No. 3 Cincinnati last year.
** The Buckeyes are making their sixth consecutive BCS game appearance and ninth overall. They are 5-3 in their previous eight BCS games, including last year’s 26-17 win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
** Arkansas is making its first-ever BCS appearance. The SEC has the best record in BCS games of any conference, going 14-5 overall that includes a 3-1 record head-to-head with Big Ten schools. The Big Ten is 10-12 all-time in BCS games, which includes Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl loss to TCU.
** Arkansas won 10 regular-season games this year for only the eighth time in school history. The Razorbacks will be seeking to equal their all-time single-season mark with a win over the Buckeyes. UA previously notched 11 victories in 1964 and 1977.
** Tressel is 36-15 against ranked opposition during his tenure at Ohio State. Petrino is 6-8 in three seasons with the Razorbacks against top-25 teams.
** With a win over Arkansas, Ohio State would match USC with a record six BCS game victories.
** Kickoff for the 77th Sugar Bowl game is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Eastern. (That is 7:30 p.m. local time.) The game will be telecast to a nationwide audience by ESPN with Brad Nessler handling play-by-play duties and color analysis from Todd Blackledge. Holly Rowe will report from both sidelines.
** The game will also be broadcast by ESPN Radio with Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Matt Millen (color analysis) and Quint Kessenich (sideline reports) as the broadcast crew. The game is also available on Sirius satellite radio channel 125 and XM channel 102.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
** Here’s a little trivia for you: TCU (13-0) will become the eighth team in the BCS era to finish the season undefeated and not win a national championship. Can you name the others? The answer comes later.
** Utah’s loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl snapped the nation’s longest bowl winning streak at nine. The Utes’ bowl streak tied for the second-longest ever. Florida State won 11 in a row between 1985 and 1996 while USC won nine straight from 1923-45.
** Despite their loss, the Utes are still 12-4 all-time in bowl games and their .750 winning percentage is the best in the nation of the 74 schools with at least 10 bowl appearances.
** With two PATs and a pair of field goals against Utah, Boise State kicker Kyle Brotzman established a new Division I-A record for career points by a kicker with 439. He ranks third on the NCAA all-time scoring list regardless of position, trailing only Miami (Ohio) running back “Touchdown” Travis Prentice (468, 1996-99) and Texas running back Ricky Williams (452, 1995-98).
** Tulsa running back/kick returner Damaris Johnson racked up 326 all-purpose yards during his team’s 62-35 Hawaii Bowl victory over Hawaii and became the all-time Division I-A leader in all-purpose yardage. Johnson moved his career total to 7,796, moving past Western Michigan running back Brandon West (7,764, 2006-09), Clemson running back C.J. Spiller (7,588, 2006-09) and Memphis running back DeAngelo Williams (7,573, 2002-05).
** Northwestern’s 45-38 loss to Texas Tech in the Bowl extended the Wildcats’ bowl losing streak to eight, the longest active streak in the nation. Second on the list is UTEP, which lost its sixth straight bowl game with a 52-24 loss to BYU in the New Mexico Bowl.
** Speaking of bowl futility, Ohio’s 48-21 loss to Troy in the New Orleans Bowl dropped the Bobcats to 0-5 all-time in bowl games. Ohio is one of only three schools to appear in at least three bowls without a single victory.
** You might forgive Fresno State head coach Pat Hill for never again wanting to see the blue turf of Bronco Stadium at Boise State. Hill’s Bulldogs lost to BSU on the Smurf Turf by a 51-0 score during the regular season, and then dropped a 40-17 decision to Northern Illinois on the blue field Dec. 18 in the Humanitarian Bowl.
** Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure had one of the most unsung seasons of any running back in college football. Leshoure rushed for 184 yards in his team’s 38-14 Texas Bowl win over Baylor to give him 1,697 for the season and establish a new school single-season rushing record. The game also marked Leshoure’s ninth 100-yard game of the season, another new school record.
** Congratulations to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. With his team’s 33-17 win over Miami (Fla.) in the Sun Bowl, Kelly became the first Fighting Irish coach to win a bowl game in his first appearance since Dan Devine scored a 20-9 victory over Penn State in the 1976 Gator Bowl.
** Alabama’s 49-7 win over No. 9 Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl marked the second-largest margin of victory over a top-10 team in a bowl since 1990. The Crimson Tide’s 42-point win was exceeded only by Miami (Fla.), which scored a 46-3 romp over third-ranked Texas in the 1991 Cotton Bowl.
** As you might have guessed, the 52 points allowed by Michigan in its Gator Bowl loss to Mississippi State were the most ever allowed by the Wolverines in a bowl game. The previous high was 45 surrendered to Tennessee in a 2002 Citrus Bowl loss.
** Stanford’s victory over Virginia Tech last night improved the Pac-10’s all-time Orange Bowl record to 4-0 and each of those wins has been by double digits – Washington took a 28-17 win over Oklahoma in 1985, USC rolled to a 38-17 win over Iowa in 2003, the Trojans stomped Oklahoma by a 55-19 score in 2005, and the Cardinal ran off with a 40-12 verdict last night.
** The quirkiest bowl factoid of the year: When Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin threw five interceptions in his team’s 37-24 Outback Bowl loss to Florida, it marked the second year in a row than a Big Ten quarterback had thrown five interceptions on New Year’s Day. Last year, Northwestern QB Mike Kafka pitched five picks in his team’s 38-35 overtime loss to Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
** Here is the answer to our trivia question. The seven other teams that have finished undefeated in the BCS era and not won a national championship are Boise State (14-0 in 2009), Utah (13-0 in 2008), Boise State (13-0 in 2006), Auburn (13-0 in 2004), Utah (12-0 in 2004), Marshall (13-0 in 1999) and Tulane (12-0 in 1998).
THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORY
** On Jan. 3, 2002, top-ranked Miami (Fla.) scored a 37-14 victory over No. 2 Nebraska in the Rose Bowl to win the school’s fifth national championship. Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey threw for 362 yards and three touchdowns while tailback Clinton Portis ran for 104 yards and one touchdown.
** On Jan. 3, 2003, second-ranked Ohio State upset defending champion Miami (Fla.), 31-24, in two overtimes at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. The victory ended the Buckeyes’ 34-year national championship drought and ended the Hurricanes’ 34-game winning streak. OSU tailback Maurice Clarett scored on a 5-yard touchdown run in the second overtime before the Buckeyes stopped Miami on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Of the 43 players who started in the game (OSU’s Chris Gamble started on both offense and defense), 37 eventually became NFL draft picks including 18 first-rounders.
** On Jan. 4, 2000, No. 1-ranked Florida State captured its second national title with a 46-29 Sugar Bowl win over No. 2 Virginia Tech. Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke threw for 329 yards and four touchdowns while wide receiver Peter Warrick caught six passes for 163 yards and two scores and added a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown. Florida State became the first team in college football history to spend an entire season ranked No. 1 by both major polls.
** On Jan. 6, 1979, the East scored a 56-17 victory during the East-West Shrine Game played in Palo Alto, Calif. A crowd of 72,000 watched the game, then the second largest crowd for the second oldest postseason college football game after the Rose Bowl.
** On Jan. 8, 2007, Florida freshman Tim Tebow began an NCAA record streak of 14 consecutive games with at least one touchdown by rushing and passing as his No. 2 Florida team rolled to a 41-14 victory over top-ranked Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game. Tebow rushed 10 times for 39 yards and a touchdown, while completing his only pass for a 1-yard score against the Buckeyes in Glendale, Ariz. Tebow continued the streak by rushing and throwing for a touchdown in all 13 games of the 2007 season en route to the Heisman Trophy.
** On Jan. 9, 1965, the North and South played to the first tie in the 16-year history of the Senior Bowl before a capacity crowd of more than 40,000 in Mobile, Ala. The 7-7 tie featured College Football Hall of Famers Steve DeLong of Tennessee (who was named MVP) and Tucker Frederickson of Auburn. Trailing 7-0 in the third quarter, South quarterback Joe Namath (Alabama) hit receiver “Bullet” Bob Hayes (Florida A&M) with a 53-yard touchdown pass to even the score. The South squad went on to miss two potential game-winning field goal attempts in the fourth quarter.