The Ohio State Football team (11-2) will play its first game in almost four weeks as they take on USC (11-2) in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl. After being snubbed from the College Football Playoff despite a conference title, the Buckeyes still have a lot to prove. With J.T. Barrett at the helm for the last time in his college career, OSU will kickoff against Sam Darnold and the Trojans at 8:30 p.m. tomorrow on ESPN.
The last time we saw the Buckeyes take the field, they were securing a Big Ten Championship in a 27-21 victory over Wisconsin. Despite winning the game by only six, Ohio State outgained the Badgers 449-298, holding a 238-60 advantage in the run game. OSU was led by Big Ten title game MVP J.K. Dobbins, who racked up 174 yards on 17 touches. Barrett was very shaky in the game, especially in the second half. He threw two picks on the day, one coming back for a touchdown, but was backed by a stellar defense that picked off Alex Hornibrook twice as well.
The story for this year’s Ohio State team was an apparent failure to acknowledge the success of the power run game. The true freshman Dobbins had a phenomenal year, totaling 1,364 yards and seven touchdowns as the starting running back, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. However, whenever the team needed a spark on offense, they seemed to shy away from the run game. This was especially true in their big loss to Iowa, the one that kept them out of the playoffs, when Dobbins received just six total carries. Barrett, who had to carry the offense on most days as a result, threw just one pick in the team’s first eight games, but struggled down the stretch – throwing eight interceptions in the last five games.
The Buckeyes defense is loaded with future NFL talent, especially along the defensive line. The defensive end trio of Nick Bosa, Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard totaled 17.5 sacks on the year with 32 tackles for a loss. It was the secondary that experienced a bit of a set back from recent years. After registering 21 interceptions a year ago, the Silver Bullets snagged just 12 this season. The Ohio State defense that had seven pick-sixes in 2016 saw none in 2017. While the defense still performed at an extremely high level, the Buckeyes definitely felt the absence of guys like Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore in the defensive secondary.
USC, like Ohio State, is another team that won their conference but was left on the outside looking in for the College Football Playoff. The Trojans defeated Stanford 31-28 to win the Pac-12. Quarterback Sam Darnold showed every bit of why he is projected to be an early first-round draft pick, throwing for 325 yards and two touchdowns. USC also received a big contribution from running back Ronald Jones II, who added 140 yards and two touchdowns on the ground as part of a very balanced offensive attack.
Darnold has been the talk of the Trojans and really all of college football for the entire season. After a 2016 campaign wherein he threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns, Darnold was able to come back and have another great season in his second year as a starter. This season, Darnold threw for 3,787 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. While the turnovers are alarming, having thrown a pick in nine of 13 games, Darnold still completed almost 64 percent of his passes and constantly came up big when his team needed him most.
Similarly to the Buckeyes, USC has been a menace in opposing backfields all season. Defensive linemen Rasheem Green and Christian Rector have combined for 16.5 sacks and 23 tackles for loss. The Trojan secondary, which intercepted opposing quarterbacks 16 times this year, was led by Jalen Jones. The redshirt junior walk-on picked off four passes this year while adding seven pass deflections and 41 tackles. USC will have their hands full with an Ohio State offense that averaged over 523 yards this season. Having allowed over 404 yards per game, compared to OSU’s 292.3, it will be the tallest task the Trojans have faced this year.
With both teams full of NFL talent and angry about not making the playoffs, the Cotton Bowl should have an intense and competitive atmosphere. If the two teams look to play to their strengths, we will see two opposing game plans: a USC air-attack versus an Ohio State ground and pound. A shaky-at-times Buckeye secondary will have to contend with Darnold’s electric arm, while the Trojan defense that allowed 158 yards per game on the ground will have to try and limit Dobbins’ explosiveness.
Finishing just outside of playoff contention at number five, Ohio State is going to want this one more. Going back to their roots, Dobbins will see upwards of 15 carries and find the end zone twice. Having some time to rest his injured knee, a healthy Barrett will give the Buckeyes an unstoppable run-pass option resulting in a more high-powered offense than the Trojans have seen all year. Darnold will do his best to keep USC in the game, but the OSU front four will create a ton of pressure, forcing him into some bad throws and a couple of interceptions.
Final Score: 35-20 Ohio State
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