September 13, 2008 was less than a decade ago in real time, but in college football years, a millennium might have passed since then.
The Coliseum was packed to the gills that day for what was supposed to be one of the season's most important games, No. 1 USC against No. 5 Ohio State. A marquee matchup full of history if ever there was one.
But instead of fireworks, the college football world got treated to a dud: a 35-3 Trojan blowout, a game that Ohio State was never really in. Mark Sanchez, pre-butt-fumble, threw for four touchdowns. The late Joe McKnight tore up a befuddled Jim Tressel defense for 105 yards on just 12 carries. The Buckeyes' lone points came from South African-born Ryan Pretorius, who recorded the game's first score and missed his only other chance of the day.
QB Todd Boeckman threw for just 84 yards and two interceptions, benched late for a true freshman named Terrelle Pryor. The leading Buckeye rusher, Boom Herron, gained just 51 yards on 11 carries.
What a difference nine years makes.
Name: J.K. Dobbins
Height/Weight: 5'10, 208 lbs.
Line: 181 carries, 1364 yards, 7 TDs; 22 catches, 135 yards, 1 TD
The 2017 Buckeye offense is as explosive as the 2008 one was plodding. Outside of maybe H-back Parris Campbell—more on him in a moment—there is no player more explosive than freshman phenom J.K. Dobbins, who shared touches this year and still lit the college football world on fire.
That big-play ability just might be the factor that gives the Buckeyes the edge over the Trojans in the Cotton Bowl. Talented as this year's USC team is, they've been miserable at stopping other teams' explosive plays, finishing the regular season just 76th nationally in that category. That ranking drops to 90th on clear passing downs. The run defense was exposed in a blowout loss to Notre Dame that saw Irish RB Josh Adams go for a cool 191 yards and three TDs on just 19 carries, and the Trojans advanced to this game against Ohio State by winning a squeaker over Stanford in which they allowed 125 yards to Bryce Love.
That's not to say that the Trojans can't stop the run at all. Between the tackles, they've got the potential to blow up just about everything, thanks to star inside linebacker Cameron Smith, who leads the team in both tackles (77.5) and run stuffs (14). Outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu helps hold the edge, boasting seven run stuffs of his own and 9.5 tackles for loss.
What to watch for
Still, it'll be a tall order for the Trojans to contain the Buckeyes on the ground for four quarters. Urban Meyer's fully weaponized team boasts the No. 2 rushing attack by efficiency and the No. 35 run game in explosive plays generated. The combined powers of Dobbins, Mike Weber, and J.T. Barrett keep the chains moving with the best of them, and wear down opposing defenses enough to bust a few backbreaking big gains per contest.
Dobbins is the best candidate to make one or two of those happen. He ripped off a 77-yard run against one of the nation's best rush defenses in the Big Ten Championship game, and has tallied multiple other carries of 50+ yards on the year. (Don't sleep on Mike Weber, though: he went through the Michigan State defense like the proverbial hot knife through butter last month.)
Ohio State also has the services of H-back Parris Campbell, who's a threat to take the ball to the house every time he's targeted. He averages close to 15 yards per touch, whether it's a quick-hitting slant or a (maddening) throw to the sideline in the flat. The Buckeyes are 7.5-point favorites in this one, but if they can stick to their guns, they might double up that margin against a defense the numbers say they're perfectly tailored to beat.