Is this the season Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes finally exorcise their SEC demons?
The 2011 Sugar Bowl. Arkansas and Ohio State.
A sexy BCS newcomer versus the old kid on the block. After surviving life in the rugged SEC West, Arkansas has surely earned its place in the Sugar Bowl, which is not to disregard the achievements of the Buckeyes, who this season clinched at least a share of the Big Ten title for the sixth straight year and once again will compete for another high-profile bowl prize.
When it’s all said and done, however, how will things stand? Will the Razorbacks become merely the latest SEC bully to steal Tressel’s lunch money, or will OSU play its part in asserting the Big Ten’s dominance in 2010?
Here five matchups to look for.
Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor vs. Arkansas Defensive line
Like all dual-threat quarterbacks, Pryor has the ability to beat defenses with his feet and arm. However, like so few players in college football, he also can turn a broken play or a singular missed tackle in an 80-yard touchdown in seconds.
This is the dilemma awaiting the Arkansas unit, specifically its defensive line, where gap responsibility and resisting the temptation to rush upfield will be paramount in keeping Pryor where he’s less comfortable—the pocket.
Don’t be surprised if linebacker Jerry Franklin, Arkansas’ leading tackler, does a bit of espionage on Pryor for some of the game, but coordinator Willy Robinson will need a total team effort from his men. And that effort begins (and ends) with defensive ends Tenarius Wright, Jake Bequette and Damario Ambrose, who have combined for 11 of Arkansas’ 35 sacks this season.
But forget the sacks. Pressure would be nice, but the Hog D-line needs to maintain the edge and stay disciplined in their lanes to prevent Pryor from exiting the pocket and entering the flat, where he becomes twice as deadly with the option to either throw or run the ball against defenders in space.
Arkansas' Travis Swanson, Wade Grayson and Alvin Bailey vs. Ohio State DT Cameron Heyward
The Razorbacks feature one of the best running games in the SEC, but it will be a moot point if the interior of the offensive line can’t hold its water against Heyward. At 6’5”, 288 pounds, Heyward looks svelte by traditional defensive tackle standards, but his quickness and ability to outmaneuver larger offensive linemen is what makes him such a disruptive force in the middle of the Buckeye defense.
Even with Ryan Mallett’s gun under center, Arkansas, at least at times, will need to run the ball effectively to control the pace of the game and keep Pryor and Co. off the field.
To open running lanes for a fantastic trio of backs consisting of Knile Davis, Ronnie Wingo and Broderick Green, the threesome of Swanson, Grayson, and Bailey will need to neutralize Heyward, whose mission, when creating penetration is not a possibility, will be to occupy blockers at the point of attack so the OSU linebackers can roam clean and pile up tackles.
Whether Heyward is lined up over the nose or in either A-gap, it will be imperative for the interior of the Hog offensive line to execute proper hand technique and establish good pad level, especially for Swanson, who at 6’5” is taller than the average center. From there, it’s just a matter of how offensive line coach Chris Klenakis wants to attack Ohio State’s All-Big Ten performer during the course of the game.
Depending on the call, the Razorbacks could opt to go one-on-one on Heyward with Swanson, leaving the other two-thirds of the interior to deal with OSU’s other tackle, Dexter Larimore, and the ends. Or they could use a number of different combo blocks, requiring either Grayson or Bailey to team with Swanson on Heyward before slipping off into the second level and picking off a linebacker.
Either way, the interior of the Arkansas offensive line needs to pay extra attention to Heyward. If he’s given anything less, Arkansas’ running game will stall, putting undue pressure on Mallett and the passing game.
Bobby Petrino vs. Jim Tressel
Let’s just call this one more psychological than having anything to do with any actual Xs and Os. That said, it’s still hard to tell who exactly has the edge.
The advantage should be clear-cut for Tressel, shouldn’t it? I mean, after all, he’s been here so many times, and his program has been built on sweat, tears and BCS money. But the Buckeyes, at least under Tressel’s watch, have yet to clear that SEC hurdle. Will futility against teams from the South, and not his flashy sweater vests, ultimately be Tressel’s trademark? Or will he get the upper hand on Petrino, thus reversing the curse?
Speaking of Petrino, how will he approach this game? It doesn’t seem all that long ago that puppets bearing his likeness were being burned on stakes in Louisville and at various spots outside Atlanta. He’s seems fully vested in building something at Arkansas, which isn’t a prospect he stayed around long enough to see through at his other positions.
How will he handle the magnitude of his program’s first-ever BCS appearance? Is he at a disadvantage for having never been here, or does the weight that’s being placed on Tressel’s shoulders ease some of his burden?
Ohio State CB Chimdi Chekwa vs. Arkansas Receiving Corps
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they have only one Chekwa, who is undoubtedly one of the better cornerbacks in not only the Big Ten, but the nation. That is because while Arkansas’ passing attack goes through the big-armed Mallett, its lifeblood is an assembly of receivers that is impressive in depth and numbers.
No receiver on the Arkansas roster has caught more than 49 passes or generated more than 718 yards, but the sum of the parts is what makes this group so special. Jarius Wright is the leader in yards with 718, and D.J. Williams’ 49 receptions lead the team. Though not a full-time starter, the explosive Cobi Hamilton has a team-high reception average of 19.6 yards. And then there are Greg Childs and Joe Adams, who have combined for 11 scores and an average of 145 yards per game.
In all, the five have accounted for more than 80 percent of the Razorbacks’ passing output this season. Stopping that distribution is the challenge that awaits Chekwa and the Buckeye secondary. Needless to say, a pass rush from the front four would help, but even then, I don’t know if the OSU defensive backs have the overall speed and athleticism to turn and run with this receiving corps.
Depth could also become an issue, particularly when OSU is forced to insert a nickel back in place of a linebacker. Is Ohio State’s fifth corner or third safety better than Arkansas’ fourth wideout?
The Buckeyes’ best bet may be to assign Chekwa to whichever Arkansas receiver is having the most impact, therefore leaving the rest of the secondary to match up with the other receivers. From there, does OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock rely primarily upon zone or man-to-coverage to get the job done? Or does he underlay a mixture of both under a package of exotic blitzes to confuse Mallett, risking the possibility that his defensive backs may get beat while on an island?
Ryan Mallett vs. Ryan Mallett
This is not a misprint. As the old adage goes, a team will only go as far as its best players will take it, and Mallett is the undisputed leader of this Arkansas team. Without him, and his NFL-worthy attributes, the Razorback offense is less potent and everything fails to fall in line.
As spectacular as the former Michigan transfer has been in 2010, throwing for 3,592 yards and 30 touchdowns versus only 11 interceptions, Arkansas has faltered when Mallett has made bad decisions or has been forced to watch from the sideline.
In a 24-20 home loss to then-No.1 Alabama, Mallett tainted an otherwise phenomenal day with a trio of interceptions, including two late in the fourth that snuffed out a potential Razorback rally.
Two weeks later against Auburn, Mallett completed 10-of-15 passes before being forced to leave the game after suffering a blow to the head. Backup Tyler Wilson performed more than admirably in his absence, throwing more than 300 yards and four scores, but his two picks in the fourth quarter doomed Arkansas and fueled a 28-point barrage to allow Auburn to seal the 65-43 win.
If Mallett is healthy, does he not make the mistakes made by Wilson? Nobody knows. But Mallett’s most mistake-prone games have come against quick and athletic defenses. Five of his 11 interceptions came against Alabama and LSU, two of the better units in the nation. How will he fare against the Buckeyes, who allow a Big Ten-best 13.3 points per game and have surrendered only seven passing touchdowns all season?
If Mallett’s unable to stay out of his own way, and attempts to fit balls in where they don’t belong, advantage Ohio State.