Ohio State steals Arkansas' thunder
NEW ORLEANS (AP)
They'll have some good memories to tide them over during the long layoff.
Pryor threw two touchdown passes, helping the No. 6 Buckeyes build a big lead, and Solomon Thomas made an interception with 58 seconds remaining to seal Ohio State's first postseason win against a Southeastern Conference school, 31-26 over No. 8 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night.
The Razorbacks had a chance to pull off an improbable comeback when they blocked a punt with the clock winding down. Two plays later, Thomas surprised Ryan Mallett by dropping into coverage, and Arkansas' star quarterback threw the ball right to the 255-pound defensive end.
''That was the second interception of my whole life,'' Thomas yelled on the field as his teammates celebrated around him. ''It feels great.''
Pryor didn't look so great at the end, limping off the field with a sprained right ankle. But he turned in his second straight MVP performance in a bowl, following up last year's Rose Bowl award with a team-leading 115 yards rushing.
Pryor and Thomas were among five Ohio State juniors given five-game suspensions by the NCAA for selling memorabilia and getting discounted tattoos. But they don't have to start serving their penalties until next season, giving them time to come up big for the Buckeyes in the Big Easy.
A thank-you note to the governing body might be in order. The group of suspended players also included Dan Herron and DeVier Posey, who each scored a touchdown, as well as starting left tackle Mike Adams.
''Their contributions were important,'' Ohio State coach Jim Tressel acknowledged. ''They're great kids. And I'm looking forward. ... We've got a plan. And if we'll stick with our plan, we'll be fine.''
Tressel said all five players pledged to return for their seniors seasons to serve their suspensions. Pryor reiterated that he plans to follow through on his vow.
''I don't think I'm ready for the NFL,'' the quarterback said. ''I got a lot of learning to do and better decision-making to make, on and off the field.''
The Buckeyes (12-1) had lost their previous nine postseason meetings against the SEC. They finally ended the slide and earned some respect for the Big Ten after a dismal performance on New Year's Day, when the league went 0-5 - including three losses to SEC schools.
Rallying from a 31-13 deficit late in the third quarter, Arkansas (10-3) had a chance to stun the Buckeyes when Colton Miles-Nash leaped over two linemen to block a punt, putting the Razorbacks at the Ohio State 18 with 1:09 remaining.
It looked as though Julian Horton could've scooped up the ball and run for the go-ahead score, but he wound up just falling on it. That turned out to be costly.
''He just wanted to make sure he got on the ball,'' said coach Bobby Petrino, who guided the Razorbacks to their first BCS bowl. ''Unfortunately, we weren't able to scoop and score.''
Mallett was 24 of 47 for 277 yards, including a pair of touchdowns. But he'd sure like to have that last pass back, throwing it right to Thomas. The big guy held on like a receiver to seal Ohio State's win.
''I didn't see the guy,'' Mallett said. ''I tried to get rid of it quick. They had pressure coming. I didn't see him. He made a great play.''
Pryor completed 14 of 25 passes, including a 15-yard TD to Dane Sanzenbacher and a 43-yarder to Posey. Pryor also led the running game, hurting his ankle in the final minutes after he'd already done plenty of damage.
And one more time, he apologized for that run-in with the NCAA.
''We're very sorry,'' he screamed to the crowd from a podium in the middle of the field, after needing help from two teammates to climb aboard. ''I apologize and I'm sorry. Go Bucks!''
Ohio State raced to a 28-7 lead in the first half. Sanzenbacher scored the first of his two TDs by recovering a fumble by Pryor at the end of a 34-yard run. Two Arkansas players knocked each other off the loose ball, and the Ohio State senior fell on it.
Herron scored on a 9-yard run, then Pryor hooked up with Sanzenbacher and Posey on touchdown throws that had it looking like a Buckeyes rout. Arkansas stopped the onslaught, but Ohio State was still comfortably ahead, 31-13 with just over 4 minutes left in the third quarter, after Devin Barclay booted a 46-yard field goal.
From there, it was all Arkansas - until the final minute.
Mallett started the comeback by floating a pass with perfect touch to the corner of the end zone. Jarius Wright ran under it and got a foot down for a 22-yard touchdown.
The Razorbacks might have been more inspired by the 2-point conversion. Mallett flipped a pass to tight end D.J. Williams, who was wrapped up and appeared stopped by Jermale Hines. But Williams somehow got his right arm loose and stuck the ball across the plane of the goal line, cutting the Buckeyes' lead to 31-21.
Then, after backing up Ohio State at its own 4 with a punt, Arkansas benefited from a highly questionable call by the officials to pick up two more points.
Herron was stacked up at around the 2 by Anthony Leon, who shoved the running back into the end zone. But the officials didn't immediately blow the whistle, Herron broke away briefly and then was swarmed over by Jake Bequette and Rudell Crim.
After briefly huddling, the officials ruled it a safety, despite Tressel's protests that Herron's forward progress had been stopped outside the end zone.
With the Arkansas side of the Superdome roaring and momentum clearly on their side, the Razorbacks took the ensuing kick and drove into range for Zach Hocker's third field goal of the game, a 47-yarder that made it 31-26.
Clearly desperate to swing the tide, Tressel gambled on fourth-and-1 from his own 38. He sent Herron diving over the line, and he came down beyond the first-down marker. Only one problem: he didn't bring along the ball. Tramain Thomas stripped it away in mid-air, and even though the Buckeyes recovered, it didn't matter. They fell on the loose ball behind the line, turning it over to Arkansas.
On the very next play, however, the Razorbacks were called for holding. Then, on third-and-16, Mallett found Lance Ray breaking open across the middle, but Arkansas was doomed by a familiar problem: yet another dropped pass, one of at least a half-dozen in the game.
Joe Adams was the main culprit, botching a throw on the first play of the game that might've gone for a TD, and letting another one slip from his grasp in the back of the end zone.
Throw in Mallett's big mistake at the end, and it was enough for Ohio State to escape with its first bowl win against the SEC.
''They have a great conference. No one would refute that,'' Tressel said. ''To beat a team like that is special.''