Special to Hawgs Illustrated, from the Buckeye Sports Bulletin
At Ohio State, BCS games are par for the course. The Buckeyes will be making their sixth consecutive appearance in a BCS game and their ninth in the 13-year history of the setup, but that doesn't mean head coach Jim Tressel or his team are bored by the success.
"The Buckeyes are excited to be going to the Sugar Bowl," he said while donning a red blazer the night the matchup with Arkansas was announced. "We're awfully proud of our seniors who have once gain led us to a championship in the Big Ten and a chance to play in a BCS game the magnitude of the Sugar Bowl, playing against a great team in Arkansas."
The Buckeyes will be appearing in their first Sugar Bowl since after the 1998 season – though the team tripped to New Orleans after the 2007 season to play LSU in the BCS National Championship Game – and trying to earn their first postseason win against an SEC team.
In all, Ohio State is 0-9 in such contests including winless in three tries under Tressel, but the 10th-year head coach says that record won't have an effect on the upcoming contest.
"I think when you hear about matchups with SEC teams, you know you're going to play great teams," he said. "It just so happens that the record is what it is, in large part because you've played against great football teams, but it really doesn't have a bearing on this one.
"In this one, you have to do the things it takes to beat a great football team."
The game will be the first ever between Ohio State and Arkansas, but there will be some interesting matchups. OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor is a dual-threat signal caller much like Auburn's Cam Newton, who piloted his team to 65 points during a win vs. the Razorbacks.
There is intrigue on the other side at QB as Tressel and the Buckeyes are familiar with Ryan Mallett, who played against the Buckeyes as a freshman at Michigan in 2007.
"An Ohio State-Arkansas matchup, I think, will capture the interest of the country, especially when you're talking about two quarterbacks that everyone in the country knows about in Ryan Mallett and Terrelle Pryor," Tressel said. "They're two outstanding programs."
Tressel is fond of saying that his team gets as its works deserve, and it would be hard to argue that in 2010. With a lone loss, Ohio State fell short of its goal of the BCS title game, but the Buckeyes did play well enough to show they're one of the top teams in the country.
"I think you go into the year with the ultimate goal in mind that you'd like to play in the championship game," Tressel said. "We always say if we didn't earn that, you'd like to be the automatic recipient (of the conference's BCS bid), which in our case is the Rose Bowl
"But, of course, you'd like to be in a BCS game. There's something about being one of the top 10 teams in the country. There are 10 teams that play in the BCS, and if you can earn your way into the top 10, it's a heck of a thing."
After starting the year ranked No. 2 in the country in both preseason polls, the Buckeyes were dominant in the first half of the season. The biggest game was a 36-24 win against then-No. 12 Miami (Fla.) in Ohio Stadium, a game in which the Buckeyes forced four interceptions out of Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris.
OSU moved to 6-0 by starting the conference slate with wins against Illinois and Indiana, and a loss by Alabama on Oct. 9 moved the Buckeyes up to No. 1 in the country.
To that point, Ohio State had outscored its opponents by a 259-81 margin, but Wisconsin had the team's number Oct. 16. The Badgers opened up a 21-0 lead in the first half and ran for 184 yards on the way to a 31-18 win that knocked the Buckeyes out of the top spot in the polls and from the ranks of the unbeaten.
After the game, Tressel said the Buckeyes had to regroup.
"There's going to be days when it doesn't go exactly as you would like it to go, and what is really the measure of the person is how they deal with that adversity," he said. "You talk to them about the fact that you will really appreciate the fact that when you do have adversity and handle it, that will be something that you'll feel real good about."
Ohio State's response was to come out the next two weeks with blowout wins against Purdue and Minnesota. After a week off, the Buckeyes came from behind to beat Penn State, staged a late rally to beat Iowa and then drubbed Michigan in the final contest of the year to finish at 11-1.
"We pride ourselves on playing our best football at the end of the year," wideout Dane Sanzenbacher said. "I feel like we've proven that. We've been in some tough games, some tough situations, but we've been resilient, so obviously I feel like we deserve to be where we are."
There are still fair concerns about the strength of the Ohio State team, however.
The team with the best record that the Buckeyes beat was Ohio, which finished 8-4 thanks to a 6-2 record in the Mid-American Conference. Penn State, Iowa and Michigan all finished 7-5, while Miami posted the same record and fired coach Randy Shannon at the end of the season.
Just like much of what the Arkansas offense does is based on the talents of Mallett, the Buckeyes run their offense through Pryor.
The junior was one of the top dual-threat options in the country in 2010. He finished the regular season having run the ball 120 times – second on the team – for 639 yards and four touchdowns while completing 196 of 298 passes (65.8 percent) for 2,551 yards, 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Despite those numbers, Pryor – who was much improved as a passer during the campaign than in his first two seasons – has fallen short of national acclaim and was left off the All-Big Ten first and second teams.
Though frustrated with that result, Pryor has also maintained all year that he's not in it for the numbers.
"I don't really get into the statistical things because I don't really believe it," Pryor said. "I believe in winning and leading the team to victory no matter what it is. It doesn't matter about stats."
There is reason to wonder about how Pryor will perform in the bowl game. Though he's one year removed from a 266-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Rose Bowl vs. Oregon, the junior struggled against the best teams on the OSU schedule in 2010. In games against Miami, Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa and Michigan, he was 70 for 128 (54.7 percent) with six touchdowns and five interceptions.
Though Pryor has been inconsistent, he has been helped out by a burgeoning run game. Many Ohio State fans complained throughout the early season for the team's inability to line up and run at teams, but the Buckeyes went back to their roots on the ground for much of the back half of the year.
That went hand in hand with the emergence of Dan "Boom" Herron. The junior averaged only 48.0 yards per game in the nonconference season but became the No. 1 back during the Big Ten slate, placing third in the league with 109.5 yards per game in conference-only stats. He also finished the year on an 11-game touchdown streak and had 15 scores overall.
Herron, a hard runner who can break through tackles or make a defender miss, ended the year with 175 yards vs. Michigan, allowing him to finish with 1,068.
"It's a dream come true," the soft-spoken rusher said of breaking the 1,000-yard mark. "It was definitely one of my goals this year. I'm very grateful for that."
Senior co-captain Brandon Saine is also a versatile back, rushing for 312 yards and catching 22 passes for 195 yards and five touchdowns.
Out wide, the top targets are Sanzenbacher, a co-captain, and DeVier Posey. A senior, Sanzenbacher was named team MVP, its most inspirational senior and a first-team All-Big Ten choice after finishing with 889 yards and 10 touchdowns. His average of 17.1 yards per catch led the Big Ten.
While Sanzenbacher is more of a tough receiver with great hands, Posey is an elite talent still putting it together. Despite some drops and some down performances, the junior was second on the team with 50 grabs.
Tight end Jake Stoneburner also caught 18 balls despite a midseason ankle injury that cost him two games.
Up front, left tackle Mike Adams went from a question mark at the start of the year to first-team All-Big Ten honors. He was joined on that squad by senior left guard Justin Boren, like Mallet a Michigan transfer, and junior center Michael Brewster. Senior right guard Bryant Browning is also dependable and a co-captain.
Yet again Ohio State posted some of the best defensive numbers in the country. Coordinator Jim Heacock's defense is in the top six in the country in scoring defense for the sixth year in his six-year tenure, placing third with 13.3 points allowed per game. Ohio State has also allowed only 250.6 yards per game.
"You have some guys who have been in the fray before, and I think they're able to do some adjustments and know what's going on," Heacock said. "I think our guys have done a good job in the senior leadership of it and realize it's a 60-minute-plus game."
However, there have been some struggles. The Buckeyes couldn't stop Wisconsin on the ground during the Badgers' win in October, while Miami, Penn State and Michigan had segments of the game in which they were able to move the ball.
Ohio State boasts a bend-but-don't-break defense and also excels at forcing turnovers, nabbing 29 on the season. A fast, athletic unit, the Buckeyes have done well at stopping spread offenses on the year.
Up front, the Buckeyes are led by first-team All-Big Ten choice and co-captain Cameron Heyward. A strongside defensive end, Heyward chose to return for his senior season rather than go pro and has had an excellent year with 42 tackles, 9½ for loss, and an interception he returned 80 yards vs. Miami.
"It means a lot to have a guy like that," linebacker Brian Rolle said. "He's a great senior leader that we have now who thought about going into the NFL but put aside making a lot of money to come back and help his team."
On the other side, junior Nathan Williams adds versatility. A pass-rushing end who can also play the run and drop back into coverage, Williams had 44 stops including 4½ sacks along with a hand in four turnovers. In the middle, senior nose tackle Dexter Larimore and powerful sophomore John Simon are also disruptive forces.
The two full-time starting linebackers, senior co-captains Rolle and Ross Homan, also were both first-team all-league choices. The diminutive but fast Rolle led the team with 70 tackles, including a team-best 10 TFL, while Homan made 63 stops and forced two fumbles despite missing two games with an ankle injury.
The secondary has been maligned by a lot of fans because of coverage issues but also made its share of big plays. The Buckeyes were also hurt by long-term injuries to nickel back Tyler Moeller, his backup Christian Bryant and starting safety C.J. Barnett.
Senior cornerback Chimdi Chekwa led the team with three interceptions and 11 pass breakups while making 42 tackles on the way to first-team All-Big Ten and second-team Walter Camp All-America honors, while fellow senior Devon Torrence added two picks to go with 42 tackles. Third corner Travis Howard has two interceptions and has earned increased playing time as the season has gone on.
Senior safety Jermale Hines, who also works as a hybrid linebacker/safety in the team's nickel look, was another first-team All-Big Ten choice after making 61 tackles. He is a versatile player who excels near the line of scrimmage or in coverage.
Sophomore Orhian Johnson showed his inexperience at times but made 44 stops, while senior Aaron Gant has earned the most significant playing time of his injury-plagued career near the end and has 21 stops.
Ohio State's special teams really struggled at the start of the year, giving up both a kick return and punt return touchdown vs. Miami and another kickoff return TD to start the loss to Wisconsin.
However, things in that realm have improved throughout the year as coverage members have gotten healthy, and specialists Devin Barclay and Ben Buchanan have settled into their roles.
Barclay was one of the most dependable kickers in the nation, making 19 of 22 tries including 3 of 4 from beyond 40 yards with a long of 48. Buchanan, a sophomore, finished his first regular season as the starter with a 41.2-yard punting average and 13 kicks inside the 20.
In the return game, backup running backs Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry have been explosive, with Hall returning a kickoff for a touchdown vs. Michigan.
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