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January 5, 2011

Ohio State finally exorcises SEC demons

NEW ORLEANS -- Finally, mercifully, all the jokes and taunts will end. The demons have been exorcised. The smug critics have been quieted.

After surviving a second-half meltdown to escape with a 31-26 Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas on Tuesday night, Ohio State finally has won a bowl game over a Southeastern Conference opponent.

Now, maybe the Buckeyes should start a tradition of presenting its players gold charms for beating SEC opponents in bowl games. A rare item like that surely would fetch much more than the gold football pants trinket (for beating Michigan) and other memorabilia that quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other Buckeyes exchanged for cash and tattoos, an enterprise that will sideline them for the first five games next season.

All five of those players played huge roles in lifting Ohio State to its first bowl victory against an SEC opponent in 10 tries. Pryor was named the game's most outstanding player after passing for 221 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for 115 yards and routinely confounding Arkansas' defense with clutch third-down conversions. Wide receiver DeVier Posey and running back Dan Herron scored touchdowns. Offensive tackle Mike Adams had a strong game. And defensive end Solomon Thomas had the game-sealing red zone interception.

"To all the Buckeye fans ... all five of us are very sorry," Pryor shouted to thousands of Ohioans deliriously celebrating. "I apologize. I'm sorry."

Obviously, he's forgiven. By leading the Buckeyes to the victory, Pryor may have given Ohio State fans the greatest gift short of a national championship.

"I think it's a big deal because Arkansas is a great team," coach Jim Tressel said. "... It's a great conference, no one would refute that. To be able to beat a top team like that is special. It's special to win this particular game. To know it's an SEC team makes you a little prouder because you know how good that league is."

After losses to Florida in 2006 and LSU in '07 in the BCS national championship games (and regular-season losses to USC in 2008 and '09), Ohio State became the target of message-board bashing and talk-show taunts. In addition, those performances helped critics dismiss the entire Big Ten as a collection of slow, plodding teams.

After an inept 0-5 showing by the league in New Year's Day bowl games, the Big Ten's caliber of play again came into question. But behind Pryor, the Buckeyes looked every bit as fast as the Razorbacks, if not faster.

The Buckeyes' first touchdown came after Pryor scrambled for 35 yards on a third-and-9 play. His fumble on the play bounced into the end zone, but wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher dived over two Arkansas players to recover it for the score.

Herron had a 9-yard touchdown run, and Pryor then added a 15-yard touchdown pass to Sanzenbacher and a 43-yarder to Posey as the Buckeyes built a 28-10 halftime lead.

Arkansas rallied in the second half, but Ohio State's defense, which sacked quarterback Ryan Mallett four times (the Buckeyes had just 18 sacks coming into the game), kept turning the Razorbacks away and three times forced the Hogs to settle for field goals.

Still, Ohio State almost found a way to lose.

The Buckeyes were at their 38 and clinging to a five-point lead with 1:15 left when Arkansas' Colton Miles-Nash blocked Ben Buchanan's punt. The ball bounced back toward Ohio State's goal line and Arkansas' Julian Horton recovered, but fell down at the 18. Two plays later, Mallett had his pass for Jarius Wright intercepted by Thomas.

"I didn't see the guy; he dropped out," said Mallett, a junior who may have played his last game for Arkansas. "I tried to get rid of it quick. They had pressure coming. I didn't see him. He made a great play."

No question about that. That the interception was made by one of the suspended five put an even bigger spotlight on the play.

The NCAA sees selling memorabilia for profit as a cardinal sin. Georgia star wide receiver A.J. Green was suspended four games this season for a similar offense. But the NCAA decided a bowl game is too important to be compromised and delayed the punishment until the first five games of next season -- that is, if the NCAA doesn't grant an Ohio State appeal to lessen the penalty.

Ohio State's explanation was that the players sold those awards and trinkets to help their families. The school also claimed its compliance personnel didn't do a good job educating players about NCAA rules. But if Ohio State isn't sufficiently educating its players about such simple rules, wouldn't that be more reason for the NCAA to issue a harsher punishment? And shouldn't Ohio State hold those compliance officials responsible?

One could argue that five games is, mathematically, a much sterner punishment than missing one bowl game. That's true -- except there's no guarantee that the players won't declare for the NFL draft.

Afterward, Pryor did reiterate his plans to return next season.

"I don't think I'm really ready for the NFL," he said. "I think I've got a lot of learning and better decision-making I have to make, on and off the field.

"And I think even off the field, I think I need to grow up a little bit more and mature as well in that standpoint. So I just have a lot of growing up to do. And we'll take steps. I talked to Coach Tressel and we have a plan going down and I have to follow it exactly how he put it."

Pryor and Co. would miss games against Akron, Toledo, Miami, Colorado and Michigan State. None of those teams will be as highly ranked as the Buckeyes, but one misstep could cost the Buckeyes a chance to win a conference or national championship.

But all those Buckeyes reveling in the Superdome on Tuesday probably would agree that's a small price to pay to finally beat an SEC team in a bowl.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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