• After being left out of the College Football Playoff, Ohio State took it to USC early in the Cotton Bowl and cruised to a win on the strength of its defensive line and secondary.
By Scooby Axson
December 30, 2017

ARLINGTON, Texas — Ohio State came into this season with some of the highest expectations imaginable; ranked second in both major preseason polls, stacked with a talented defense, the returning leadership and poise of fifth-year quarterback J.T. Barrett and enough challenges in the schedule to warrant placement in the College Football Playoff should it stumble or put forward a lackluster effort as it navigated through the year.

But no Power Five school went through the year unscathed, and the Buckeyes proceeded to get thrashed at home in September by a team that did make the playoff—Oklahoma—and ultimately saw any chance of a national title go out the window by the unlikely steamrolling that was put on them by nearly three-touchdown underdog Iowa.

Winning the Big Ten Conference got the Buckeyes a trip to Dallas instead of Pasadena or New Orleans despite some of the best lobbying this side of Nick Saban, whose case included late-night calling into ESPN. The Crimson Tide’s questionable résumé got rewarded with a fourth straight trip to the playoff.

The Cotton Bowl was the eighth time the two powerhouses, who claim a total of 19 national championships, have met in the postseason, most of those occurring in the Rose Bowl, when longstanding Pac-12 and Big Ten teams met before the explosion of conference realignment and big-time television money influenced everything in college football you see for six months of the year.

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Ohio State Handles USC in a Surprisingly Defensive-Minded Cotton Bowl

Ohio State (12–2) wasted no time taking out that playoff snub on USC, forcing a fumble on the game’s third play and finding paydirt a little more than a minute later on a Barrett one-yard keeper. It poured it on from there, with a thorough 24–7 win before a partisan Buckeye crowd.

The best non-playoff matchup on paper was anything but; instead the victory exorcised some long-rooted demons in doing something that previous Ohio State coaches Earle Bruce, John Cooper and Jim Tressel could not in past manhandlings by USC.

The Trojans, who had beaten Ohio State seven straight times, proceeded to play exactly like the last time they were at AT&T Stadium.

In the 2015 season opener, USC was routed by Alabama 52–6, in part because of an avalanche of sloppy play and being simply outclassed by a superior team.

Sam Darnold didn’t start that game, but got some garbage time snaps when the game was well in hand, leading to him winning the starting job a few weeks later, saving jobs along the way while placing his name into Heisman and the inevitable mock-draft talk.

In a return to its house of horrors, the Trojan Horse of gifts kept coming courtesy of Darnold. In USC’s first seven possessions to open the game, it turned it over three times, supplying the Buckeyes with 21 points, more than enough to complete the win.

While Darnold’s play (and his 22 turnovers for the season) drew the close scrutiny of NFL scouts in attendance, this game and the end of the season was clearly about the Buckeyes.

Ohio State has its own history at Jerry’s World. Three seasons ago, it won the first College Football Playoff national championship in a victory over Oregon after beating the aforementioned Saban in the semifinal.

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While the perceived chip on the Buckeyes' shoulder was as big as the video board at AT&T Stadium, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer insisted before the game that he wasn’t worried about the things he can’t control, like playoff politics.

Meyer, who is 73–8 in his six years with Buckeyes, isn’t exactly in favor of extending the playoffs to eight teams either, saying the current CFP was “hitting on all cylinders.”

For the most part, his team that showed up this time at the Cotton Bowl was too.

Greg Schiano’s defense harassed Darnold most of the night, sacking him eight times and constantly running down his backfield mates behind the line of scrimmage. The final insult of this dreaded night was Chase McGrath missing a chip shot 28-yard field goal that could have inched the Trojans closer.

“We’ve got the best D-line coach in America and he had them ready to rock and roll,” Meyer said. “You saw what I saw. If you don’t let [Darnold] set his feet you have a chance. You saw at the end of the game that quarterback never set his feet. Our defensive line and secondary won that game.”

The exclamation point came late in the fourth quarter when Darnold, who went 26 for 45 for 356 yards, was hit by Jalyn Holmes deep in Buckeye territory and fumbled for the fourth Trojan turnover.

That made life easy for Barrett, who was not asked to do much in the air, having to only complete 11 of his 17 pass attempts for 114 yards. He added 16 carries for 66 yards and guided the offense in cruise control in the second half, breaking Drew Brees’s conference record for total offense.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Moving forward and reloading are the words of the day for Ohio State, as they are losing not only Barrett, but also defensive end Tyquan Lewis, All-American cornerback Denzel Ward—who chose to sit out Friday and protect his draft status—and possibly as many as eight others who contributed over the past three seasons.

The talent pool that Meyer restocks with relative ease will be in the mix again for championships in 2018 and will return to Arlington once more with a non-conference showdown with TCU on Sept. 15.

USC (11–3) continued the Pac-12’s dismal bowl season and has questions it has to answer as well for next season, mostly notably the status of redshirt sophomore Darnold, who could forego his eligibility and enter the draft.

When asked, Darnold did not provide much clarity about the possibility of going to the NFL.

“Talking to my family, talking to coaches, that’s how I will go about it,” Darnold said about his future. “It’s tough. I will look at everything and make my decision after that.”