NEW ORLEANS — Many people leave New Orleans’ famed Bourbon Street with the taste of alcohol in their mouths.
But it was losing that left a rotten taste in the mouths of the Ohio State Buckeyes as they departed the Crescent City three years ago.
There’s nothing simple about playing in the Big Easy.
OSU learned that the hard way Jan. 7, 2008, falling short in a 38-24 loss to LSU in the BCS Championship Game in the Tigers’ backyard.
“The last time we were here … playing against LSU, I thought we came out ready to go and played pretty darn well,” said OSU coach Jim Tressel. “Then (we) had some adverse things happen, and probably got knocked off kilter a little bit and didn’t regain our feet for 10 or 12 minutes in the game. And when you’re playing great teams, that’s not something that you can afford to do.”
Three years later, the OSU football program is still recovering from its consecutive title game losses in 2007 and 2008.
The senior class that endured the sequel of OSU’s national title blockbuster flops can earn redemption in tonight’s Sugar Bowl against Arkansas, another SEC foe enjoying the Southern comfort.
“Last time I was here, I had a sour taste in my mouth after we left,” said defensive end Cameron Heyward. “To end it out here would be great for me.”
Since the loss to LSU, the Buckeyes have worked to restore their reputation as one of college football’s elite programs.
A narrow loss as a heavy underdog to Texas in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago put OSU on the right track. A Rose Bowl victory against Oregon 12 months ago gave the Buckeyes a boost.
But would those successes plus a Sugar Bowl victory atone for the pair of glaring blemishes on OSU’s résumé?
“When you put so much time into something and so much effort — like we did this season, starting way back in the summer and through all that — when you have one last chance to put it on the field, that’s pretty much all you can focus on,” receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said.
Unlike last January, when a win in Pasadena, Calif., set the bar for OSU’s lofty 2010 expectations, tonight’s result might not set the tone for the 2011 season.
The NCAA suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas for five games after learning the players had violated NCAA rules by selling gifts and apparel to the owner of a Columbus tattoo parlor in 2009.
Freshman linebacker Jordan Whiting must sit out one game.
NCAA rules prohibit athletes from receiving benefits or discounts based on their personae.
The suspensions, however, won’t take effect until the start of next season. The NCAA concluded that the rules education provided by the OSU compliance department did not meet NCAA standards at the time the players sold the merchandise.
That leaves Tressel and OSU with a tricky predicament.
Pryor, Herron, Posey and Adams — all starters — can help reverse OSU’s past poor fortunes against the SEC, which is 9-0 all-time against the Buckeyes in bowl games.
But then those same players must watch from afar as their teammates take on Miami (Fla.) and Michigan State next season.
Nonetheless, Tressel maintains that the team hasn’t lost focus, despite the ongoing circus revolving around his squad.
“Anytime you spend time on anything, that’s a little bit of a distraction,” Tressel said. “You can try to make up that time, but just like anything else, you invest your time in certain things and wish you had more time for others. … When game time hits, we will be ready.”
For now, Tressel said the Buckeyes must block out what might lie ahead in the future while trying to bury past haunts of a New Orleans nightmare.
If they do, the taste in the Buckeyes’ mouths won’t be sour; it’ll be sweet as sugar.
“I think the thing that will have an impact on how we play in the Sugar Bowl will be how we play,” Tressel said. “Will we take care of the ball? Will we knock it loose? Will we cover our lanes on the kickoff coverage?
“So, will those things (be affected by the looming suspensions)? I would sure like to think they wouldn’t.”