USC prep for deep, explosive Ohio State receiving corps in Cotton Bowl

Steven Branscombe/Getty Images
Steven Branscombe/Getty Images /

Led by quarterback JT Barrett and a swath of perimeter playmakers, Ohio State looks to make life difficult for the USC pass defense in Friday’s Cotton Bowl.

Ohio State brings a high-octane offense with them to face USC in the Cotton Bowl, ranking among the national leaders in a bevy of categories.

But while the rushing attack led by JK Dobbins and Mike Weber grabs most of the headlines, it could be the passing game that creates some of the most pressing challenges for USC’s high-risk high-reward defense.

The Trojans are second in FBS in total sacks and do their best to limit passing efficiency —they rank 12th in passing success rate against— but have simultaneously been left reeling on big plays far too often.

That’s where Ohio State steps in, armed with JT Barrett at quarterback and a plethora of options in the passing game. If the Trojans are to beat the Buckeyes, who sit third nationally in Passing S&P+, for the eighth-straight time in the historic series, they’ll have contain OSU in more ways than one.

Facing highly talented playmakers is nothing new. Clancy Pendergast’s defense has seen a host of star skill players in 2017, all offering a unique challenge.

Against Stanford, there was Heisman Trophy runner up Bryce Love at running back and dynamic receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Notre Dame had Josh Adams. Utah brought Darren Carrington. Arizona lived and died on Khalil Tate.

Some made the Trojans pay, while others struggled in schemes designed to neutralize them.

In the Cotton Bowl, Ohio State tasks Troy with a new and final test to ultimately define the defense’s season. Try and stop an offense so chockfull of playmakers —particularly at receiver— that Pendergast’s defense can’t focus on one or two marked men to contain.

Nine different OSU players have caught more than 15 passes this season. Seven have a minimum of 20.

Six have at least three receiving touchdowns, five regulars average better than 13 yards per reception and four have better than 400 receiving yards.

I don’t think [we’ve] seen that many receivers that touch the ball [and] have that much production.—Clancy Pendergast

Only one receiver —sophomore K.J. Hill— has been targeted on more than an eighth of the Buckeyes’ total pass attempts.

“I don’t think [we’ve] seen that many receivers that touch the ball [and] have that much production,” Pendergast said.

Distribution is the name of the game for Barrett at quarterback, which in theory is easy to do with so many weapons around him.

At 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-2 respectively, Terry McLaurin and Austin Mack are the traditional strong route-running outside receivers the Trojans can expect to face on the edge in coverage, particularly early in downs. Only 10.2 percent of the duo’s receptions have converted third downs.

When the Buckeyes need a steady stream of yards apart from their vaunted three-headed rushing attack, they look to get speedy H-backs K.J. Hill and Parris Campbell involved. The slot men have combined for a third of OSU’s completions, primarily in space to create mismatches with linebackers, much in the way Urban Meyer’s offenses at Florida used Percy Harvin.

It’s deep-threat Johnnie Dixon and 6-foot-4 red-zone-target Binjimen Victor who get the call when Ohio State is looking to strike fast. They’ve combined for 15 touchdowns this year, despite only 41 receptions.

“They have the fastest group of receivers I’ve seen in my career, and I’m not just talking about one particular receiver,” safety Chris Hawkins said. “I’m talking about all five or six of them. They can pose a threat to us at anytime in the game.”

It creates a game of Survivor for the Trojans.

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The defensive backs must outwit Barrett and company with their reads and outplay their man in coverage, if they want to outlast Ohio State’s exhaustive amount of perimeter talent and speed.

“I don’t run 10.0 [in the 100 meters], so I’ve got to make sure that I’m ready,” Hawkins said.

Luckily for the Trojans, they might not have to be ready for a full clip from the Buckeyes’ arsenal.

It’s hard managing and finding enough playing time for so many weapons, which has led to dry spells for  several of OSU’s highly-productive receivers.

Dixon, who leads the team with eight touchdowns, has registered just one catch since a two-game stretch against Penn State and Iowa in which he got to the end zone four times.

Mack’s best game of the year was against PSU, with six catches for 90 yards. He’s had just one reception since.

It’s the downside of owning a ‘good problem to have’ and maybe, just maybe, a key for USC’s pass defense.