Cotton Bowl: USC falls to Ohio State in turnover-filled letdown

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: Sam Darnold /

Friday night’s Cotton Bowl was one to forget for USC, as they lost a could’ve-would’ve-should’ve game against Big Ten champion Ohio State.

The lowdown: In a bizarro Cotton Bowl, USC and Ohio State played to a defensive struggle that saw the Trojans lose 24-7 despite out-gaining the Buckeyes 413 to 277.

It all started when Deontay Burnett fumbled on the Trojans’ first drive, leading to a 19-yard scoring jaunt to open the scoring for Ohio State. After taking a 7-0 lead, the Buckeyes would blow the game open in the second quarter on the back of a 23-yard pick six by Damon Webb and a 28-yard J.T. Barrett scamper to the house.

After leading 24-0, Ohio State’s success on offense would stall with the USC defense rising tall for the remainder of the game. The Trojans’ only score came after K.J. Hill muffed a punt late in the second quarter to set the table for a 15-yard touchdown drive.

Chase McGrath missed a fourth quarter field goal down 17, and USC’s final four drives ended inside the Buckeye 40 without any points to show for it.

The takeaway: USC’s defense came to play. They held the running back duo of the nation’s No. 2 team in Rushing S&P+ to just 3.17 yards per carry. They forced Ohio State to punt or turn it over on downs their last six drives. They did their job and gave the offense a chance, as they have for much of the year despite trailing by as many as 24.

In turn, the Trojans’ offense was abysmal and wasted a sensational day for Clancy Pendergast’s defense. They turned the ball over four times, stalled seven times on the Ohio State side of the 50, and allowed a season-worst eight sacks of quarterback Sam Darnold.

Yet again, it came down to Darnold’s struggles with turnovers, a lack of pass protection and USC’s inability to run the ball consistently against the country’s best defensive line.

But despite all of their struggles, nothing tops the offense’s inability —or even worse, unwillingness— to play with any urgency in the fourth quarter despite controlling the ball for almost 10 minutes and running 25 plays.

Seemingly giving up was an insulting display in lieu of the resilience from USC’s defense.

Player of the game: Tyler Vaughns had a banner night, catching six passes for 119 yards, many of which were spectacular, acrobatic snares along the sideline for big games to keep USC drives alive.

Stat of the game: The Trojans held Ohio State’s JK Dobbins and Mike Weber to a combined 57 yards on 18 carries, good for a 3.17 yards per carry average. They still somehow lost by three scores.

Next on tap: USC’s 2018 season will start in 245 days at home against UNLV.