As soon as Arkansas' Colton Miles-Nash dove through the Ohio State line to block a punt with just over a minute remaining in the Sugar Bowl, Buckeye fans everywhere probably had one thought on their collective minds: "Not again."
Facing off against teams from the Southeastern Conference in the post season has been something of quixotic endeavor for Ohio State. The storied Big Ten program had lost nine consecutive bowl games to the SEC, stretching all the way back to a 1978 Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama, before the start of tonight's contest.
But just like winning streaks, losing streaks are made to come to an end and an interception by OSU's Solomon Thomas of a Ryan Mallett pass with 58 seconds left in the game slammed the door on a furious rally by the Razorbacks and delivered a 31-26 victory to the Buckeyes.
Terrelle Pryor threw two touchdown passes, helping Ohio State build a big first half lead, but Arkansas (10-3), led by probable NFL first-round selection Mallett and an aggressive defense, almost clawed their way back from a 28-10 halftime deficit.
The Buckeyes' Pryor and Thomas were among five Ohio State players found to have violated NCAA rules by selling memorabilia and getting discounted tattoos just before the Buckeyes (12-1) headed for the Big Easy.
That group - which will be forced to sit out the first five games of the 2011 season - also included running back Dan Herron and wide receiver DeVier Posey, who each scored a touchdown. But Thomas, the only backup among them, made the biggest play of all.
Pryor has vowed to return for his senior season, even though he won’t be able to play until next October. He left the Ohio State faithful with a good memory, completing 14 of 25 passes, including a 15-yard TD to Dane Sanzenbacher and a 43-yarder to Posey.
Pryor also ran for a team-leading 115 yards.
Mallett was 24 of 47 for 277 yards, including a pair of touchdowns. But he’d sure like to have that last pass back.
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.
In the last minute of the third, Mallett laid out a pass with perfect touch in 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 the 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 the ball 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 that familiar problem: yet another dropped pass.
Forced to punt, the Razorbacks backed up Ohio State to its own 4 again with 4:33 remaining. Miles-Nash's block gave Arkansas one last chance to win it, but Thomas clinched it with his pick.
Pryor kneeled down twice, and Ohio State finally had that first bowl win over the SEC.