As Ohio State makes its final preparations for Tuesday's Sugar Bowl game against Arkansas, the single-most dominant object standing in the way of the Buckeyes as they seek to end their winless ways against the SEC is Ryan Mallett.
NEW ORLEANS -- As Ohio State makes its final preparations for Tuesday's Sugar Bowl game against Arkansas, the single-most dominant object standing in the way of the Buckeyes as they seek to end their winless ways against the SEC is Ryan Mallett.
In a town with more voodoo shops than libraries, an old foe with a history that includes Michigan has come back to haunt the Buckeyes.
"He's a guy a lot of people talked about as being the next great Michigan quarterback," Ohio State senior defensive back Chimdi Chekwa said about the current Arkansas junior.
Mallett has become a great quarterback, only not at Michigan. He left Ann Arbor after his freshman year in 2007, convinced there was no place for his pro-style passing skills in the spread offense of incoming UM coach Rich Rodriguez.
The Texarkana, Ark., native moved much closer to his roots and then proceeded to make himself at home in the Razorbacks' offense. Since sitting out 2008 as a transfer, he has started 25 straight games for Arkansas and mounted a one-man assault on the Razorbacks record book.
"Obviously he's a bigger guy now, with a stronger arm, and he can make all of the throws on the field," Chekwa said about Mallett, who has thrown 60 touchdown passes over the last two seasons. "He's different from the other quarterbacks we've played this year."
At 6-6 and 240 pounds, Mallett has the size the pros covet, as well as the arm strength to deliver the ball with smoke, or finesse.
"He's on top of his game," Ohio State senior defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said of Mallett, who has the top two total offense seasons in Arkansas history -- 3,595 yards in 2009, and 3,546 and counting in the 2010 season.
"He's zipping the ball even faster. He leads his team very well, and when they need a big play, you can always rely on him."
Mallett has 35 pass completions of 25 or more yards this season, and five completions of 70-plus yards. His nine 300-yard passing games this season lead the nation. Over his two years as Arkansas' quarterback, Mallett has averaged 30 yards per touchdown pass -- the best in SEC history.
Ohio State senior linebacker Ross Homan said if the Buckeyes are not able to get pressure on Mallett and rush his decision-making process, they will be in for a long night in the Superdome.
"If he has time to sit back there, he'll pick you apart. He makes throws you aren't supposed to be able to make," Homan said about Mallett, who completed better than 66 percent of his passes this season when he threw for an average of just under 300 yards a game.
"It's definitely going to be a huge challenge. He's by far the best quarterback we've faced all year, but I think the whole defense is looking forward to that."
Brian Rolle, Homan's running mate at linebacker for the Buckeyes, said he is concerned about Mallett's size and the Arkansas quarterback being able to see the whole field and get the ball over on-rushing linemen. Rolle is equally concerned about Mallett's arm strength and his ability to make the toughest throws with precision, but it might be Mallett's football IQ that worries Rolle the most.
"He does a great job making decisions. You can tell that if he comes out and doesn't like what he sees, he is going to change the play and put them in the best position. I feel like that is where he can become dangerous," Rolle said. "With him being as smart as he is, that is probably the thing you have to watch out for."
Mallett, even though he is four years removed from his stint at Michigan and has built his legend at Arkansas, admits there is still a pint or two of maize and blue running through his veins.
"Obviously, I had the traditional rivalry hatred [while at Michigan], and I've still got a little Michigan in me from that," Mallett said. "I've never really been a big fan [of Ohio State]. To get a win over Ohio State would be special."
For the Buckeyes to disrupt Mallett and prevent him from enjoying that win over Ohio State three years after he first failed to do so as a quarterback at Michigan, they have to first get to him.
"Really, I think it's going to come down to our line against their line," Ohio State senior defensive tackle Dexter Larimore said. "I think it's going to be very difficult. Ryan Mallett is one of the best quarterbacks we've faced. He does a lot of things we really don't like to see as a defense."
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