The crucial interception – Thomas' first career pick – came only 17 seconds after the Razorbacks had blocked an OSU punt and taken over at the Buckeyes' 18-yard line. But when Thomas faked a rush and dropped into coverage, he stepped into the passing lane between Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and intended receiver Jarius Wright.
It helped the Buckeyes avoid blowing what had been a 28-7 first-half advantage and finally got the Southeastern Conference monkey off their backs. Ohio State had lost all nine of its previous bowl games against SEC competition.
"We played a great team tonight," OSU head coach Jim Tressel told ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe following the game. "Arkansas is a great team. But our kids fought and fought. They fought like crazy. … This is a big moment for us."
In addition to watching their early lead slowly disappear, the Buckeyes also piled up a number of costly injuries. That included losing senior cornerback Chimdi Chekwa in the final minute of the first quarter with what appeared to be either a dislocated or broken right wrist. OSU also lost quarterback Terrelle Pryor to a foot injury for one play near the end of the game, and the junior QB had to be helped from the field following the contest.
Before suffering the injury on a crucial fourth-down quarterback sneak in the fourth quarter, Pryor earned game offensive MVP honors by throwing for 221 yards and two touchdowns and adding 115 yards on the ground.
The Buckeyes wound up with 446 total yards, but they had 338 of those in the first half when they were seemingly in control.
In addition to Pryor's big performance, junior tailback Dan "Boom" Herron carried 24 times for 87 yards while junior receiver DeVier Posey grabbed three receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown. Pryor, Herron, Posey and Thomas were four of the five players who will serve five-game suspensions at the beginning of next season for selling OSU football-related items and receiving improper benefits. The fifth is junior offensive tackle Mike Adams, who also started for the Buckeyes.
For Arkansas, Mallett completed 24 of 47 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns. But he was the victim of constant harassment all evening from the Ohio State, particularly senior lineman Cameron Heyward. Heyward, who missed some playing time of his own in the game with a left elbow problem, still managed to come up with six stops, including 3½ for loss and one sack. He also batted down a critical fourth-down Mallett pass early in the second quarter.
Senior defensive lineman Dexter Larimore was also a consistent thorn in Mallett's side, accounting for two sacks. Sophomore lineman John Simon also had a sack.
The OSU defense did, however, allow Arkansas running back Knile Davis to rush for 139 yards on 26 carries. Davis' total was the highest for any Ohio State bowl opponent in the Tressel era and the second-highest rushing total for any nonconference opponent in the 10 seasons Tressel has been head coach. Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe rushed for 171 yards in his team's 35-12 loss to the Buckeyes in the 2006 season opener.
The Buckeyes started the frenetic first half with a frenetic touchdown play that capped an eight-play, 74-yard march. On third-and-9 at the Arkansas 37, Pryor was flushed from the pocket and scrambled all the way to the 5. But he lost control of the football, which slipped through the hands of two Razorback defenders before senior receiver Dane Sanzenbacher fell on it in the end zone for the touchdown.
Senior kicker Devin Barclay added the PAT and the Buckeyes had a 7-0 lead at the 11:41 mark of the first quarter.
The Razorbacks answered quickly thanks to a short field after OSU kickoff specialist Drew Basil couldn't convert what appeared to be a surprise onside kick. Arkansas recovered at the Ohio State 49 and Mallett drove his team into the end zone in less than two minutes. A 17-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Joe Adams and freshman kicker Zach Hocker's conversion kick tied the score at 7 with 9:43 remaining in the opening period.
Ohio State came right back as Pryor engineered a seven-play, 68-yard drive that took only 2:26 off the clock. The big plays were a 14-yard scramble by the OSU quarterback and a 31-yard pass play from Pryor to Sanzenbacher. That gave the Buckeyes a first down at the Arkansas 20 and Herron did the rest, piling ahead for 11 yards and then capping the march with a 9-yard touchdown run through a huge hole up the middle.
Barclay's point-after kick pushed Ohio State back in front at 14-7 with 7:17 left in the first quarter.
The game may have turned early in second quarter when Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino elected to go for fourth-and-1 at the OSU 30. As Larimore pressured Mallett, Heyward swatted away the fourth-down pass and the Buckeyes took over on downs.
Pryor immediately cashed in on the opportunity, moving Ohio State 70 yards in eight plays for another touchdown. On the second play of the series, Pryor threw a quick out pass to tight end Reid Fragel, who galloped 42 yards into Arkansas territory.
Six plays later, Sanzenbacher made a circus catch in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown. Barclay's PAT made it 21-7 with 9:53 left in the first half.
The Buckeyes had a chance for more points at the 5:15 mark of the second period but Barclay's 50-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. Not that it mattered much. The OSU defense forced its second straight punt and the offense came right back with a six-play, 68-yard march that took only 64 seconds.
Pryor was responsible for all of the yardage, including a 6-yard run and three pass completions to account for the other 62. He connected with Posey for 9 yards, tight end Jake Stoneburner for 10 and then found Posey for a 43-yard touchdown. Barclay knocked through another extra point and the Buckeyes enjoyed a 28-7 advantage with 1:59 left in the half.
To his credit, Mallett wouldn't quit. He drove his team from his own 14 to the Ohio State 2, but with only 0:04 showing on the clock, Petrino this time elected to play it safe. He sent Hocker into the game, who easily converted a 20-yard field goal to set the halftime score at 28-10.
But the Razorbacks slowly chipped away in the second half. They got a 46-yard field goal from Hocker to make it 28-13 at the 9:14 mark of the third quarter, a score the Buckeyes answered when Barclay converted from 46 yards out with 4:10 remaining in the period.
Arkansas came right back on its next possession, moving 75 yards in seven plays with Mallett spiraling a perfect pass to Wright for a 22-yard touchdown. The Razorbacks then went for two points, which tight end D.J. Williams managed to convert despite the best efforts of OSU safety Jermale Hines. Williams gathered in a pass from Mallett short of the goal line, but with Hines wrapped around him, the UA tight end somehow managed to reach the football over the line to make it 31-21 with 58 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Razorbacks inched closer when linebacker Anthony Leon stopped Herron in the end zone for a safety. Herron appeared to make forward progress well past the goal line, but the officials saw it differently and Arkansas had made it a one-possession game at 31-23 with 11:52 to go.
Hocker got his team three points closer with a 47-yard field goal at the 8:55 mark to make it 31-26, and then both teams took turns making critical mistakes.
First, Herron fumbled as he vaulted over the pile on a fourth-and-1 at his own 39-yard line. But the Razorbacks couldn't cash in when a holding penalty on first down set them back and redshirt freshman receiver Lance Ray dropped a third-down pass. It was one of at least five dropped passes on the night for Arkansas.
UA punted the ball back to Ohio State, which moved out from its own 4 to the 34 before preparing to punt. By that time, Arkansas was out of timeouts and only 1:15 showed on the game clock.
But the Razorbacks blocked the kick and recovered at the OSU 18 with a chance for the victory. Mallett threw incomplete on the first play and then into the arms of Thomas on the second.