By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson knows the frustration other coaches must be feeling.
He sees Arkansas’ offense every day. He tries to find ways to stop it during scrimmages. So it’s no surprise Robinson felt a little sympathetic for some of his colleagues this season.
“I walked up to the UTEP defensive coordinator after the game and said, ‘Isn’t that a mess? Isn’t that something that you have to deal with that?’” Robinson said about Arkansas’ 58-21 win over the Miners on Nov. 13. “They are unbelievable what they do on offense. I can’t say enough about them. I don’t have enough words to speak about what we do on offense.”
Arkansas’ offense, which got off to a slow start, has put together an impressive run in 2010. Bobby Petrino’s attack stands as one of the best in the nation — and among the best in school history — averaging 37.3 points and 489.3 yards a game.
But its production will be put to one more tantalizing test when the Razorbacks (10-2) meet Ohio State (11-1) in the Sugar Bowl. The Arkansas-Ohio State matchup has been regarded as one of the most intriguing games in this bowl season and the reason is simple: the Razorbacks’ top-flight attack will go head-to-head with one of the nation’s best defenses.
Arkansas is eager for the test. It’s one the Hogs are confident they’ll pass, too, after what they’ve accomplished.
“We’ve played a lot of top-ranked defenses,” offensive tackle DeMarcus Love said. “We look forward to it. We’re not going to back down from a challenge. Not with the way we’re rolling right now. Not with a guy like Knile Davis. Not with the receivers and the offensive line we’ve got. We’re up for it.”
Ohio State has been tough to crack this season, slowing opponents with a group ranked in the top five in the nation in every major statistical category on defense. The Buckeyes are ranked third in scoring (13.3 points) and second in total defense (250.6 yards). They are fourth in the nation against both the run (94.3) and the pass (156.2).
There’s NFL talent at every position. The group is led by defense end Cameron Heyward, linebackers Ross Homon and Brian Rolle, and defensive backs Chimdi Chekwa and Jermale Hines.
“They’re really big. They’re strong. They’re well-coached,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. “They have a lot of pride. They present some things that are different than what the defenses in the SEC bring to the table.
“The way that they pressure, the way they play certain coverages are built to stop Big Ten teams.”
What does that mean? Davis put it into perspective last week, explaining the Buckeyes don’t really try to disguise much.
Instead, he said Ohio State lines up and challenges an offense with its physical front, strong linebackers and talented secondary. And, most of the time, the Buckeyes win.
“From what I’ve seen they don’t do a lot of tricky stuff,” Davis said. “They just play hard-nosed football.”
It’s a style that caused problems for Arkansas earlier this season because of its inability to run the ball.
But the turnaround has been well-documented. Davis and the ground game starting clicking in the second half of the season, helping Arkansas add much-needed physicality to its finesse passing. The Razorbacks averaged 42.5 points and 498.5 yards in their last six games, a stretch that included games against stiff defenses in South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU.
The newfound balance has grabbed Ohio State’s attention.
“This is by far the best offense we’ve played against all year,” Homon told the Columbus Dispatch earlier this month. “So we’re taking it as a huge challenge for our defense.”
The Razorbacks are the only team in the nation with a quarterback (Ryan Mallett) who has passed for 3,000 yards, a running back (Davis) who has topped the 1,000-yard mark and five receivers have at least 500 yards this season.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel noted the talent when he and the Buckeyes’ began to break down Arkansas. He was particularly impressed in the way the Razorbacks continued to move the football even when valuable performers were not on the field.
Running back Dennis Johnson went down with an injury in the second game. Receiver Greg Childs suffered a knee injury in the eighth game. Mallett even missed most of the Auburn game.
“Good teams handle adversity,” Tressel said. “That’s why they are where they are [after] they’ve lost guys. ... Arkansas has lost a guy here and a guy there, and they don’t blink.”
Arkansas set the school record for yards in a season (5,871) after the regular season and will add to it in the Sugar Bowl.
The Razorbacks also are within reach of school records for points scored (the Hogs need 38 more to set the mark) and touchdowns scored (Arkansas is five short) in a season.
None of it will come easy against the Buckeyes, though.
“They really know what they are doing defensively,” Petrino said. “They are very, very sound. They have smart players that understand their scheme, understand what offenses are doing.”
But receiver Cobi Hamilton pointed out LSU’s defense was equally impressive when the Razorbacks beat the Tigers 31-23 to end the regular season. Davis cracked the 100-yard rushing mark once again, while Arkansas’ passing attack stung LSU with a pair of touchdown passes that went for more than 80 yards.
So Arkansas is confident its offense, which is rolling into an intriguing matchup against Ohio State, will produce again.
“This offense can do anything,” Hamilton said.