Dueling QB styles in Sugar spotlight
But when Ohio State defenders watch Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, they see a completely different quarterback than the ones they previously faced this season.
"I don't think we've played anyone similar to him," Buckeyes cornerback Chimdi Chekwa said. "We've played a lot of mobile quarterbacks; he's more of a guy that stays in the pocket longer and then makes all the throws. We have to get pressure on him and attack him."
Mallett and Pryor, two of the country's best quarterbacks, take center stage when the No. 6 Buckeyes and No. 8 Razorbacks meet in Tuesday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Pryor is known for beating opponents with his arm and legs; Mallett is considered a prototype NFL quarterback with a Texas-sized arm.
Mallett, a junior from Texarkana, Texas, might be playing in his final college game. Mallett is considered a potential first-round choice in next spring's NFL draft. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks him as the No. 11 prospect eligible for the draft.
Pryor, a junior from Jeannette, Pa., will be playing in his final game for a while. He was one of five Ohio State players suspended by the NCAA from playing in the first five games of the 2011 season for selling their championship jerseys, rings and awards. Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said Pryor told him that he'll return to school for his senior season.
Three years ago, it seemed Mallett and Pryor would be the lead characters in one of college football's best rivalries. Mallett was a freshman at Michigan in 2007, when Pryor was considered the No. 1 high school prospect in the country before signing with the Buckeyes.
Subbing for injured starter Chad Henne at times, Mallett completed 43.3 percent of his passes for 892 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions in his only season at Michigan. He completed one pass for eight yards in the Wolverines' 14-3 loss to Ohio State. Mallett transferred to Arkansas after the Wolverines hired West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez to replace coach Lloyd Carr after the 2007 season.
Tressel expects to see a much different quarterback in New Orleans on Tuesday night.
"We are very familiar with Ryan Mallett from his time at Michigan," Tressel said. "We hoped we were done with him when he transferred, and here we are getting him at the height of his career."
Mallett has been a tailor-made fit for Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino's pass-happy offense. After sitting out the 2008 season under NCAA transfer rules, Mallett passed for more than 3,500 yards with 30 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons.
"He's really matured as far as his technique, his fundamentals and his footwork, and his balance and his delivery have gotten better and better," Petrino said. "I actually had him a year and a half before he played a game. That's a lot of time to be able to spend and work on technique and fundamentals."
Buckeyes linebacker Brian Rolle said he's most impressed with Mallett's ability to make quick decisions. Mallett completed 66.5 percent of his passes this season and has thrown only 18 interceptions in 767 pass attempts at Arkansas.
"You can tell that, if he comes out and doesn't like what he sees, he is going to check the play and put them in the best position," Rolle said. "I feel like that is where he can become dangerous. 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. [That] is probably the thing you have to watch out for."
Mallett hasn't faced many defenses better than Ohio State. The Buckeyes ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense (250.6 yards per game), No. 3 in scoring defense (13.3 points) and No. 6 in pass defense (156.3 yards) at the end of the regular season. OSU allowed 200 passing yards in only two games -- victories over Miami and Eastern Michigan.
"I think Ryan Mallett is one of the best quarterbacks we've faced," Buckeyes defensive tackle Dexter Larimore said. "He does a lot of things we really don't like to see as a defense. He can throw those quick balls, short passes. He's got a great release, but the thing is, if you don't get back there, he's going to hit you deep. He's got great arm strength."
Pryor has accomplished almost everything at Ohio State, outside of winning a BCS national championship or a Heisman Trophy. He guided the Buckeyes to at least a share of three straight Big Ten championships and has a 30-4 record as a starter, and he is 3-0 against rival Michigan.
"I think Terrelle has had an outstanding season," OSU offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "He's a great dual threat. He's certainly improved his passing skills this year. If you look at pure yards throughout the season, his production in the passing game has been pretty good, certainly more consistent. His passing efficiency is pretty good. He does a good job of not turning the ball over."
Pryor seemed to turn the corner at the end of last season. He was named MVP of the Rose Bowl, after leading the Buckeyes to a 26-17 victory over Oregon and throwing for 266 yards with two touchdowns and running for 72 yards.
"He kind of flashed everybody in that game, I guess," Bollman said. "You have to say he's a special athlete. His ability to run the football is probably something that is very unique. He's very, very fast. He's much faster than he looks. There are a lot of guys who can probably throw the ball pretty well, and there are some guys who run the ball pretty well. I don't know many guys that do both. There are some, but I don't think there are a whole lot of them, and he's one of them."
The Razorbacks didn't fare well against mobile quarterbacks this season. In their 65-43 loss to Auburn, Newton ran for 188 yards and three touchdowns.
And Pryor might be faster than Newton.
"When Terrelle is running, you see guys who run 4.3 [second] 40s and no one can catch him," Buckeyes fullback Zach Boren said. "He's one of those guys that when he runs, no one knows how fast he is because his strides are long, and he's just real smooth when he runs."
Ambrose has noticed Pryor's deceptive speed on film.
"Sometimes he will be running beside a [defensive back] and it doesn't look like he is running fast," Ambrose said. "All of a sudden you see him just pull away."
If Pryor does indeed return for his senior season, he won't be eligible to return until OSU's sixth game in 2011, at Nebraska, a new Big Ten member, on Oct. 8.
"I've never sat out a game in my life, so I don't know how it's going to affect me next year yet," Pryor said.
Mallett and Pryor would like nothing more than to leave a lasting impression with their respective fan bases.
"I don't go to school at Michigan anymore," Mallett said. "I go to Arkansas. As far as a rivalry, it's our first meeting between the two teams, so it's not quite as intense. It's a little bit different."
The stakes will still be very high for both quarterbacks.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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