NEW ORLEANS — Terrelle Pryor and four of his teammates won’t be able to play another game for Ohio State until October.
They’ll have some good memories to tide them over during the long layoff.
Pryor threw two touchdown passes, helping the No. 6 Buckeyes build a big lead, and Solomon Thomas made an interception with 58 seconds remaining to seal Ohio State’s first postseason win against a Southeastern Conference school, 31-26 over No. 8 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night.
The Razorbacks had a chance to pull off an improbable comeback when they blocked a punt with the clock winding down. Two plays later, Thomas surprised Ryan Mallett by dropping into coverage, and Arkansas’ star quarterback threw the ball right to the 255-pound defensive end.
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“That was the second interception of my whole life,” Thomas yelled on the field as his teammates celebrated around him. “It feels great.”
Pryor didn’t look so great at the end, limping off the field with a sprained right ankle. But he turned in his second straight MVP performance in a bowl, following up last year’s Rose Bowl award with a team-leading 115 yards rushing.
Pryor and Thomas were among five Ohio State juniors given five-game suspensions by the NCAA for selling memorabilia and getting discounted tattoos. But they don’t have to start serving their penalties until next season, giving them time to come up big for the Buckeyes in the Big Easy.
A thank-you note to the governing body might be in order. The group of suspended players also included Dan Herron and DeVier Posey, who each scored a touchdown, as well as starting left tackle Mike Adams.
“Their contributions were important,” Ohio State coach Jim 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.”
Tressel said all five players pledged to return for their seniors seasons to serve their suspensions. Pryor reiterated that he plans to follow through on his vow.
“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.”
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-yards line with 1:09 left.
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.
“I didn’t see the guy,” Mallett said. “I tried to get rid of it quick. They had pressure coming. I didn’t see him. He made a great play.”
Pryor completed 14 of 25 passes, including a 15-yard TD to Dane Sanzenbacher and a 43-yarder to Posey. Pryor also led the running game, hurting his ankle in the final minutes after he’d already done plenty of damage.
And one more time, he apologized for that run-in with the NCAA.
“We’re very sorry,” he screamed to the crowd from a podium in the middle of the field, after needing help from two teammates to climb aboard. “I apologize and I’m sorry. Go Bucks!”
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.
Mallett started the comeback by floating a pass with perfect touch to 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.