NEW ORLEANS — Its backs pinned against the wall and facing what would have been a monumental meltdown, Ohio State's came up with the biggest play of the game.
After almost squandering a three-touchdown lead in the second half, the Buckeyes were staring at a 10th straight bowl loss to a Southeastern Conference team in bowl games as Arkansas was inside the 20-yard line with just over a minute to play and trailing by less than a touchdown.
But Buckeyes defensive end Solomon Thomas intercepted a Ryan Mallett pass with 58 seconds left as No. 6 Ohio State held on for a 31-26 win over No. 8 Arkansas in the 77th Allstate Sugar Bowl in the Superdome in front of 73,879 fans here Tuesday night.
"That's a tough loss for us. We spotted them too much. Ohio State made a lot of plays in the first half and some great catches. And we were not able to execute. Really, we were not ready to go. We regrouped at halftime and played with great effort and pride. We had our opportunities.
"We are a very good team. We showed character and toughness in the second half."
The late game dramatics could not have been scripted any better. Arkansas' Colton Miles-Nash, a sophomore, crashed through and blocked an Ohio State punt that teammate Julian Horton recovered at the Buckeyes 18 with 1:04 left, setting up Arkansas for a chance to take its first lead of the game.
But Solomon raced out into the flat and stepped in front of Arkansas wide receiver Jarius Wright, intercepting Mallett's pass and ending the Razorbacks hopes in the first meeting between the two teams.
The game was a tale of two halves as Ohio State dominated the first 30 minutes with four touchdowns, while Arkansas was the better team in the second half, at least statistically. But the Razorbacks often settled for field goals when they got into scoring range and that ultimately proved the difference.
Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor was stellar in the first half, competing 13 of 19 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns as the Buckeyes (12-1) took a 28-10 halftime lead.
Pryor's running was a concern coming in for Arkansas and early on he proved why. His scramble out of the pocket on Ohio State's first possession resulted in a 7-0 lead, even if Pryor didn't score it. Pryor raced inside the Arkansas 10 on the play, but had the ball knocked away at the 9. Two Arkansas defenders had a chance to recover the fumble, but the ball squirted into the end zone, where Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher recovered it for a touchdown.
Arkansas bounced back to tie the score after Ohio State failed to cover an onside kick. Mallett hit Joe Adams on a 17-yard scoring pass on a fade in the right corner.
Then Ohio State reeled off three straight touchdowns, taking a 28-7 lead and appeared on the way to a blowout. Dan Herron capped a 68-yard drive with a 9-yard scoring run and Sanzenbacher later caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Pryor to put the Buckeyes up 21-7.
The lead later grew to 28-7 when the Buckeyes used just 1:04 to cover 68 yards with Pryor hitting DeVier Posey on a 43-yard touchdown pass with 1:59 left in the half.
Arkansas kicked a field goal as the half ended that at the time might have seemed meaningless, especially after Mallett hit Cobi Hamilton at the Ohio State 4 with just 4 seconds left in the half. Arkansas elected to kick a 20-yard field goal, cutting the margin to 28-10. That field goal later loomed large.
Whatever adjustments the Arkansas defense made at halftime proved effective as the Razorbacks (10-3) held the Buckeyes to just a field goal over the final 30 minutes. Linebackers Anthony Leon and Jerry Franklin were dominant in the second half for Arkansas and combined for 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Hocker and Ohio State's Devin Barclay traded field goals to open the third quarter, but Arkansas got a late touchdown as Mallett, who was 24-of-47 for 277 yards, hit Wright on a 22-yard scoring strike. Wright reached out to make a fingertip grab behind Ohio State corner Devon Torrence just inside the left pylon. Trailing 31-19, Arkansas went for two points and tight end D.J. Williams made a spectacular play as he caught Mallett's pass and fought to the goal line before reaching the ball over for the two-point conversion with under a minute left in the third quarter.
The Razorbacks defense came up with a huge play early in the fourth quarter, forcing an Ohio State safety as first Jerico Nelson, then a host of others converged for the tackle of Herron. But the play would not have been possible had it not been for a terrific punt by Arkansas' Dylan Breeding that pinned the Buckeyes back at their own 4. The safety cut the Buckeyes lead to 31-23.
Arkansas later cut the margin to 31-26 when it got another Hocker field goal, this one from 47 yards out.
Twice in the final six minutes Arkansas had a chance to take the lead. Prior to the late interception, Arkansas also came up with a key defensive play when Tramain Thomas forced a Herron fumble on fourth and one at the Ohio State 37.
But Arkansas failed to capitalize as a holding penalty proved to be crucial and the Razorbacks could not maintain the drive.
Davis finished the night with 139 yards on 26 carries, while Adams added nine catches for 120 yards. Arkansas also had several key pass drops.
Darius Winston tries to bring down OSU back Brandon Saine.
Joe Adams catches a 17-yard TD pass to give the Hogs a 7-7 deadlock early in the game.
Knile Davis fights for yards against the Buckeye defense.
D. J. Williams runs with the ball after a catch in the first quarter.
Bobby Petrino gets after his players in the first half.
D. J. Williams makes one of his five catches.
Knile Davis breaks a tackle.
Ryan Mallett looks down field.
Knile Davis looks for an opening.
Photos by Marc F. Henning, Hawgs Illustrated