NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Terrelle Pryor hobbled to the podium with the help of two teammates, picked up his second straight bowl MVP award, and used his time on the microphone to address the Ohio State faithful.
“I apologize and I'm sorry,” he screamed toward the scarlet-clad side of the Superdome. “Go Bucks!”
No worries. All is forgiven, especially if Pryor follows through on his vow to return next season.
Shaking off a brush with the NCAA, Pryor passed for 221 yards and two touchdowns, ran for a team-leading 115 yards and guided the No. 6 Buckeyes to their first postseason win ever against a Southeastern Conference team, beating Arkansas 31-26 Tuesday night in a Sugar Bowl thriller.
Pryor got plenty of help from four teammates who also ran afoul of the NCAA by selling memorabilia and getting discounts on tattoos. They'll have to serve five-game suspensions, but not until next season. Ohio State might want to send a thank-you note to the governing body for delaying the penalties.
Dan Herron and DeVier Posey each scored a touchdown. Mike Adams held down his usual spot at left tackle. And the biggest play of all was turned in by the only backup in the group of suspended players.
After No. 8 Arkansas was poised to complete the comeback with a blocked punt, second-string defensive end Solomon Thomas surprisingly dropped into coverage and picked off Ryan Mallett's final pass with 58 seconds remaining.
“You always hear stories about adversity and how, if you push through, lessons lie at the end,” Thomas said. “This has really taught me how to deal with adversity next season.”
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said all five players pledged to return for their senior seasons to serve their suspensions. He was sure glad to have them on the field at the Sugar Bowl.
“Their contributions were important,” 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.”
Pryor reiterated that he plans to return next season, even though some of his major goals, such as contending for the Heisman Trophy, are now out of reach.
“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.”
Pryor sustained a sprained right ankle late in the game, making it difficult for him to even climb the steps of the podium afterward to receive his MVP award, following up a stellar performance in last year's Rose Bowl win over Oregon.
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 255-pounder held on like a receiver to seal Ohio State's win.
“I didn't see the guy,” said Mallett, who now must decide whether to enter the NFL draft or return for another year at Arkansas. “I tried to get rid of it quick. They had pressure coming. I didn't see him. He made a great play.”
Ohio State raced to a 28-7 lead in the first half. Dane 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 on a 15-yard touchdown pass and Posey on a 43-yarder 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 for a 22-yard touchdown.
The Razorbacks might have been more inspired by the 2-point conversion. D.J. Williams caught a pass, was wrapped up short of the end zone, but managed to get his right arm loose and stick the ball across the 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 and shoved the running back into the end zone. The officials didn't immediately blow the whistle, Herron broke away briefly and was swarmed over by Jake Bequette and Rudell Crim.
After briefly huddling, the officials ruled it a safety, despite Tressel's protests about forward progress.
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, the Buckeyes recovered short of the first down and Arkansas took over.
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 very first play 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.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)