Ohio State and USC both came into the season hoping to be playing in the College Football Playoff, but a couple of ugly road losses kept the storied schools on the outside looking in of the four-team playoff. In October, USC traveled to South Bend and saw little go right for them in a 49-14 loss to Notre Dame. Two weeks later, Ohio State suffered one of their most embarrassing losses in school history, falling 55-24 at Kinnick Stadium to Iowa.
Had it not been for the loss to the Hawkeyes, Ohio State might be in the playoff for the third time in four years. Following the loss to Iowa, the Buckeyes did everything in their power to state their case that they should be a playoff team. Not only did Ohio State win their sixth straight game against Michigan in late November, but the Buckeyes won their 36th Big Ten title the following week, beating an undefeated Wisconsin team 27-21 in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett will be making his final start for Ohio State tonight, and the senior from Wichita Falls, Texas will be looking to close out his Buckeye career in style. Barrett holds just about every Ohio State quarterback record you can think of, and really the only record left for Barrett to set is the Big Ten’s total offense record, which Drew Brees currently holds by 175 yards. Despite not making the College Football Playoff, Urban Meyer and the rest of the Ohio State team will want to send their quarterback out with another victory.
Tonight’s game marks just the second Cotton Bowl appearance for Ohio State, with the Buckeyes beating Texas A&M 28-12 on New Year’s Day in 1988. Even though it has been over 30 years since Ohio State has played in a Cotton Bowl, they aren’t unfamiliar with the site of tonight’s game. Ohio State won the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship Game over Oregon at AT&T Stadium, and the Buckeyes will be back at this stadium in just over nine months to take on TCU.
Ohio State and USC will be facing each other for the 24th time, but USC has gotten the better of the series of late. The Trojans have won the last seven meetings between the schools. The last time these two teams squared off came in 2009, with USC squeaking out an 18-15 victory over Ohio State in Columbus. Tonight’s game marks the eighth time the two schools have faced each other in a bowl game, with the seven previous bowl matchups coming in the Rose Bowl. The last Ohio State win in the series came in the 1974 Rose Bowl, where Ohio State doubled up USC 42-21.
Much like Ohio State, USC rebounded from a two-loss regular season to win their conference championship. The night before Ohio State took down Wisconsin, USC defeated Stanford for the second time this season to win the Pac-12 Championship Game. The win gave the Trojans their fifth straight win of the season, and marked the 20th win in the last 22 games for USC.
Even though USC hasn’t played Ohio State in nearly a decade, it doesn’t mean the Trojans are unfamiliar with the Big Ten. USC is 75-28-3 against current members of the Big Ten. The last win by USC over a Big Ten team came at the beginning of the year, when the Trojans earned a thrilling 52-49 win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. The last loss by USC to a Big Ten team came in 2015, where the Trojans lost in the Holiday Bowl 23-21 to Wisconsin.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
One last stand. Ohio State’s most consistent unit this season has been their defensive line. The Buckeyes are going to need one last big performance from their strongest group this year if they want to defeat a tough USC team. What will be the difference in the Cotton Bowl is how much pressure the Ohio State defensive line can put on USC quarterback Sam Darnold.
The redshirt sophomore USC quarterback came into the season as one of the most heralded NFL draft prospects at his position, but his stock took a bit of a hit early on, with Darnold throwing two interceptions in each of his first three games of the year. While Darnold was able to make better decisions with the football the rest of the season, throwing one interception or less in each of the last 10 games, he hasn’t seen a defensive line with the talent of Ohio State.
USC’s offensive line was solid throughout the year, but they weren’t perfect, allowing 22 sacks in 13 games. The worst performance of the year from the offensive line of the Trojans came in the loss to Notre Dame, where they allowed five sacks to the Fighting Irish. Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, and the rest of the defensive line could be in for a big night against an offensive line that can be beaten.
Bosa paced Ohio State with 14.5 tackles for loss this season, while Hubbard added 10 tackles for loss. While Bosa will return next year for his junior season, it is likely Hubbard will declare for the NFL Draft, where he is expected to be a high draft pick. Not only is it likely to be the final game in the scarlet and gray for Hubbard, but it definitely will be the final game at Ohio State for Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes, who are both seniors. Expect the trio to give all they’ve got in their final college game.
For many fans, Ohio State’s offense was frustrating at times to watch, but it is a fact the Buckeyes had one of the most balanced offenses in college football this season. Ohio State was the only team in the country with both 3,000 yards rushing and passing. The combination should be able to find success against a USC defense that allowed over 400 yards per game to opponents this year. The defense of the Trojans could also be shorthanded, with starting linebacker Porter Gustin and starting cornerback Jack Jones both game-time decisions due to injuries.
Keep it simple. Ohio State is at their best when they are able to run the football. It isn’t rocket science to figure out that good things happen when the Buckeyes trust Billy Price and the rest of the Ohio State offensive line to clear the way for J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber to eat up yardage on the ground.
J.K. Dobbins is a game-changer. The true freshman started off his college career with a huge performance against Indiana in the season opener, and he hasn’t slowed down since. Dobbins’ most impressive performance of the year came in the Big Ten Championship Game, where he rushed for 174 yards against a Wisconsin rush defense that is considered one of the best in the country.
When Ohio State is able to mix the elusiveness of Dobbins with the power of Mike Weber, Ohio State is very hard to beat. Weber got off to a a slow start this year as he was dealing with injuries, but found his legs later in the year, rushing for over 300 yards and five touchdowns in the final three regular season games of the year.
Not only can Ohio State run the football, but they have a pretty potent passing attack. Instead of having one or two standout wide receivers, the Buckeyes have a number of receivers who can do a little bit of everything. Parris Campbell was the leading receiver for Ohio State this year with 587 receiving yards, while K.J. Hill caught a team-high 55 passes. Nine Buckeyes caught at least 15 passes this year, with six Ohio State receivers catching at least three touchdowns in 13 games.
Reports of a Buckeye demise might have been exaggerated. Ohio State may have spent the year high in the rankings, but over the past year there has been some doubt about the direction the Buckeye program is heading. It started with Ohio State’s 31-0 loss to Clemson in last year’s College Football Playoff, and the concerns got even worse after losses to Oklahoma and Iowa this year, along with a number of key recruits deciding to sign elsewhere during the early national signing period last week.
A win over USC tonight could not only silence some of the doubters, but also build some momentum for the Buckeyes for the 2018 season. Luckily for Ohio State, games like this are where head coach Urban Meyer excels. Not only is Meyer 15-4 in games played in either December or January, but he is 47-4 when he has more than a week to prepare for his opponent.
There is another coach on the Ohio State coaching staff besides Urban Meyer who has something to prove. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano was about to take Tennessee’s head coaching job following the Michigan game. Volunteer fans weren’t happy about the possible hire, so they voiced their displeasure by bringing up Schiano’s past at Penn State to bully the Tennessee athletic department into moving on to other candidates. The Ohio State defense could put together a spirited effort for their defensive coordinator to show Volunteer fans what they could be missing.
USC’s biggest advantages
Sam I am. Sam Darnold is the latest in a long line of great USC quarterbacks. The redshirt sophomore didn’t win the Heisman Trophy like Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart, but he could become the first USC quarterback to pass for over 4,000 yards in a season if he throws for at least 213 yards tonight.
This will likely be Darnold’s last game in a USC uniform, since he is projected to be one of the first quarterbacks taken in April’s NFL Draft, if he declares early. Darnold was given his first start last year in enemy territory against Utah, and while he lost to the Utes, since then, he has won 20 of his 22 starts.
Despite starting the season with some uneven play, Darnold has regrouped, throwing 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions over the last eight games. The redshirt sophomore has done his best work over the last quarter of the season, throwing for 300 yards or more in three of the last four games.
Despite only giving up 183 yards per game through the air, Ohio State’s secondary has had issues at times this year. Not only did the Buckeyes give up 386 yards passing to Baker Mayfield in the loss to Oklahoma, but Iowa’s Nathan Stanley passed for five touchdown in the 55-24 beatdown of the Buckeyes. Denzel Ward is one of the best cornerbacks in the nation, but the rest of the Ohio State secondary hasn’t played up to their potential at times this year. If the Buckeye secondary isn’t at the top of their game tonight, Darnold could have another big game.
Keeping up with the Jones. Sam Darnold isn’t the only talent Ohio State will have to worry about on the USC offense tonight in Dallas. Running back Ronald Jones II put together an outstanding junior campaign for the Trojans to solidify himself as one of the best running backs in the country. Jones finished the season with 1,486 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns.
Much like Darnold, Jones did his best work of the season after the loss to Notre Dame in October. Following rushing for just 32 yards against the Fighting Irish, Jones rushed for a season-high 216 yards in USC’s next game against Colorado, and ran for at least 122 yards in each of the next four games.
Ohio State has had success slowing down talented running backs like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor so far this season, but Jones could bring a mix of speed and physicality that Ohio State seen in a running back this season. The Buckeyes can’t afford to commit too many resources to slowing down Darnold and the USC passing attack, or Jones could add to the impressive rushing total he has posted so far this year.
A lot to prove. Despite being conference champions and currently being ranked inside the Top 10, USC has to be feeling a bit like a forgotten team with all of the attention being given to Ohio State heading into the Cotton Bowl. Most of what is being talked about is how close Ohio State was to making the College Football Playoff, but USC has a similar body of work to the Buckeyes, and USC could very well be making their first appearance in the College Football Playoff had they not lost to Washington State on the road, or gotten throttled by Notre Dame in South Bend.
Urban Meyer is one of the best head coaches in college football, but Clay Helton is working his way up the list. After Pete Carroll left the Trojans for the NFL, USC didn’t have much stability at head coach for a few years after short stints by Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. Helton has given the Trojans the stability to allow USC to return to national prominence. A win over Ohio State as a touchdown underdog will only help to add fuel to Helton’s coaching stock.
There will be plenty of NFL scouts at AT&T Stadium tonight to not only check out Sam Darnold, but also to take a look at a number of Ohio State players who are seniors, or are considering throwing their name into the NFL. There are plenty of USC players who are talented enough to play at the professional level, but might be forgotten about heading into this game because of the amount of talent the Buckeyes have. USC players know a big performance could put their name on the radar of many NFL teams, and move them up the draft boards of some teams.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 36, USC 24
Win probability: Ohio State 75.9%
We should be in store for an entertaining Cotton Bowl tonight at AT&T Stadium. With the amount of talent on both sides of the football, it shouldn’t be like some of these early season bowl games which have been great games to nap through.
Ohio State has just a little more talent on each side of the football, which will end up being the difference in the game. Even though USC may have the edge at quarterback with Sam Darnold, who will go on to play in the NFL, Ohio State can counter with the best defensive line in the country to pressure Darnold like no team has this year.
Ohio State can not only run the football, but when J.T. Barrett is on top of his game, the Buckeye passing game is hard to stop with their speedy wide receivers. The Trojans will put up a valiant effort, but Ohio State will be able to send J.T. Barrett out with a win in his home state.
How to watch, stream, listen to USC v. Ohio State:
Game time: Friday December 29th, 8:30 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM
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