The Buckeyes will face USC on Friday for the first time since the Trojans defeated Terrelle Pryor and company back in 2009. Since that game, the Buckeyes have racked up three conference championships and one national title behind a 101-18 record, while the Trojans have just one conference championship, zero national titles, and an 82-36 record.
Luckily for the Trojans, they’ve found their messiah in the form of Sam Darnold. He was the main factor behind their 2016 10-3 Rose Bowl winning campaign, and has certainly demonstrated the ability to make big plays in big moments. Still, his second-year as a starter hasn’t come without some bumps in the road, as his 26/12 touchdown/interception ratio pales in comparison to his 31/9 mark as a redshirt freshman.
The biggest difference for Darnold in 2017 is easy: pressure. After taking just six sacks in 2016, defenses have taken him down 21 times this season. Darnold’s loose hold on the ball hasn’t gotten any better, as he’s had nine fumbles in each of the past two seasons. Speeding up the decision-making of any 20-year old quarterback is a great way to cause turnovers, and Darnold hasn’t exactly done a great job at avoiding these types of mistakes in 2017.
The Bosa Factor
The Buckeyes have more than a handful of players in their front seven capable of making plays in the backfield, but none possess the down-by-down consistency of Nick Bosa. Ohio State’s sack leader also leads the defense in tackles for loss, as containing the first-team All-American has been equally difficult in the pass and run game.
Consistent disruption from Bosa against the pass will be needed more then ever Friday night, as Darnold is fond of creating plays with his feet and making throws outside the pocket. Bosa’s best quality as a pass rusher is his non-stop motor, a trait he shares with his older brother Joey. Combining this motor with brute strength and flawless technique isn’t the easiest thing for opposing offensive lines to handle:
The Big Ten’s reigning Defensive Lineman of the year hasn’t exactly been contained by anyone this season, as the Buckeyes’ plethora of wolves on the defensive front makes it difficult to consistently double team any single lineman. This is especially true in the run game, where getting a push against Bosa is much easier said than done:
This type of presence against the run will be needed to help slow down USC running back Ronald Jones, who has racked up 1.486 yards and 18 touchdowns on just 242 carries this season — good for an average of 6.1 yards per carry. Darnold is a red-zone threat on the ground himself as evidenced by his five rushing touchdowns. The Buckeyes are an especially terrifying defensive line when able to tee off on passing games that haven’t been able to establish the run, and having Bosa eliminate his side of the line is the first step in doing so.
It will take more than a solid performance from Bosa to get the job done against the nation’s No. 8 team, but he’s the one player on the defense most capable of having a sustained stretch where he’s the best player on the field. Bosa’s big brother helped neutralize Marcus Mariota as a threat three seasons ago, and Nick will need to do the same to Todd McShay’s early frontrunner for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
Vegas currently has the Buckeyes as 7.5-point favorites with a game total of 65 points. An estimated final score of roughly 36-29 hardly sounds like a defensive slugfest, but getting in a shootout with the nation’s 24th-highest scoring offense isn’t a recipe for success. The Buckeyes need their best players to live up to their status as some of the best college athletes in the country, and nobody is more capable of doing exactly that than Nick Bosa.