The Ohio State defense has not surrendered 200 yards passing in more than three months and has done so only twice all season, to Eastern Michigan on Sept. 25 and to Miami on Sept. 11.
Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett has thrown for more than 200 yards in every game but one this season, an Oct. 16 meeting with Auburn that saw the junior signal-caller knocked out of the game in the first half with a head injury.
When Mallett lines up opposite the Buckeye defense in Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl, something’s got to give.
“He is probably the best quarterback we have seen all year. He does a good job of reading the defense,” linebacker Ross Homan said. “It’s a matter of getting pressure and making plays.”
Statistically Mallett is one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
Mallett is “different from the other quarterbacks we’ve played this year,” cornerback Chimdi Chekwa said. “I don’t think we’ve played anyone similar to him.”
The Arkansas passer has the third-best quarterback rating in the country and sits at fifth nationally in passing yards. Mallett has also connected on 30 touchdown passes, five more than any quarterback on the Buckeyes’ schedule.
At 6-foot-6-inches and 238 pounds, Mallett is far from a mobile quarterback. He has lost 46 yards this season on the ground. Pressuring him might be the best way to limit his production.
“He’s one of those guys that you definitely have got to get after him,” linebacker Brian Rolle said. “He’s a guy that if you let him sit back there he’ll throw for 400, 500 yards.”
Mallett has thrown for 400 or more yards twice this season and the Razorbacks have allowed 24 sacks on the year.
“I’ve heard that all season. I just expect it from a top defensive team,” Mallett said about the likelihood that the Buckeyes would bring a lot of pressure. “They are one of the top 10 defenses in the country. I wouldn’t expect anything less from them.”
If the Buckeyes are able to get to Mallett in the pocket, it may be a familiar feeling. The Buckeyes sacked him once when he saw limited action for Michigan in 2007. Mallett transferred to Arkansas after Rich Rodriguez took over as Michigan head coach.
OSU players don’t expect to see many similarities between this Arkansas quarterback and the one who donned the maize and blue.
“That was basically four years ago, and now, he’s on top of his game,” senior defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. “He leads his team very well. When you need a big play, you can always rely on him.”
Choosing Arkansas meant choosing to play for a coach, Bobby Petrino, whose teams are known for gaining yards through the air.
“After I talked to him and got to know his offense a little bit, I got excited about the opportunity to play for him,” Mallett said. “That pretty much sealed the deal.”
Once he got a grasp on the offensive scheme, Mallett became one of the best quarterbacks in the country. His quarterback rating, completion percentage, and yards per attempt are all up from a year ago, his first in Petrino’s system.
“I think just systematically … they do a great job of knowing what you’re trying to do and attacking you with the thing they know hurts those coverages,” coach Jim Tressel said.
“You better not go in there with just one thought because they’ll figure it out and they’ll adjust and they’ll stall you pretty good.”
Those adjustments often come from Mallett at the line of scrimmage rather than from the coaching staff.
“If you don’t have enough guys in the box, he is going to check for a run and if there is a stack in the box, he is going to pass the ball,” Rolle said. “I feel that he being as smart as he is, is probably the thing you have to watch out for.”
Those smarts have lead to Mallett spreading the ball around. Arkansas is the only school in Division I to have five receivers with more than 500 yards. Mallett has also tossed touchdown passes to nine different players.
The versatility of the Razorback receiving corps makes the challenge greater for the Buckeye secondary.
“You have to expect it and to look forward to it,” Chekwa said. “If you’re not looking forward to it you’re in the wrong position.”
With a quarterback as talented as Mallett, simply limiting his production might be the best the OSU defense is able to do.
“He can make every throw,” co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “The hard part is to find a weakness when he can make every throw.”