USC Football held back by subpar offensive line play in Cotton Bowl

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: Sam Darnold /

USC Football’s ability to compete with college football’s elites is hindered by subpar offensive line play, as evidenced by the Trojans’ 24-7 loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.

The frustration of the Cotton Bowl, from a USC Football perspective, was just how close the 17-point loss should have, and could have, been. All it would have taken was some balance.

Head coach Clay Helton often talks about balance from the view of the offense—being able to lean on both the run and the pass in equal measure. But balance also applies to the whole of a team. Can you rely on both the offensive and defense in equal measure?

During Friday night’s Cotton Bowl Classic between USC and Ohio State, the answer was a resounding no.

“I feel like our defense was making a lot of plays. I felt like they played great. Hats off to them,” wide receiver Michael Pittman said. “We didn’t really hold up our side of the game.”

Pittman is right on that score. USC’s offense didn’t hold up their end of the deal. And not for the first time.

USC’s offense didn’t hold up their end of the deal. And not for the first time.

Despite a more favorable stat profile than their defensive counterparts, the Trojan offense hasn’t lived up to their end of the deal for most of the season. In that sense, the Cotton Bowl was a microcosm of the 2017 season.

USC’s defense held Ohio State to a season-low rushing total of 163 yards. That tied Iowa’s defensive performance in their shocking 54-24 upset of the Buckeyes. Coincidentally, the Trojans also conceded 24 points. But they definitely didn’t put up 54.

USC created 413 yards of total offense against Ohio State, becoming one of just four teams all season to surpass the 400-yard mark. Yet, the Trojans’ seven points were the third fewest by a Buckeye opponent in 2017. Only Rutgers and Michigan State scored less.

That’s seven points for an offense featuring Sam Darnold, arguably the best quarterback at USC since Matt Leinart. An offense featuring Ronald Jones II, arguably the best running back at USC since Reggie Bush. An offense featuring stellar offense weapons like Deontay Burnett, Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman. An offense that is far less than the sum of its parts.

On Friday night, the Trojans Achilles heel was exposed. The offensive line is the albatross hanging around the Trojan’s neck.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

To be fair, USC’s front had perhaps the toughest job of anyone on the field: Trying to stop an elite Ohio State defensive line. Still, theirs was the critical matchup of the game, the one that would decide one way or another how the night would go. They didn’t need to win the war necessarily, but they need to hold their own in their individual battles.

They didn’t succeed.

“We didn’t have a lot of [missed] mental assignments tonight. What we had was just physical beats,” head coach Clay Helton said.

The Buckeyes limited Ronald Jones II to 64 yards at an average of 3.4 yards per carry, cutting off USC’s balanced offensive attack by meeting ball carriers in the backfield for six tackles for loss.

On top of that, they sacked Sam Darnold eight times, hassling him far more than that.

It was the pass rush that created the most problems for the Trojans, keeping Darnold out of a rhythm and flustered, often with just a three-man rush Twice, Ohio State stripped the quarterback in the pocket, both fumbles coming in the redzone on threatening drives.

Afterwards, Trojan coaches and players cited the turnovers as the culprit in the loss, but turnovers were coupled with eight other unfinished drives resulting in zero points, and those unfinished drives were just as much a factor in the loss.

More from Reign of Troy

In a 17-point game, failing to end promising possessions with touchdowns, or even field goals, was devastating. The shaky offensive line was at the heart of those shortcomings.

The difference for USC rising to the level of competing against the nation’s best, teams like Urban Meyer’s Ohio State or Nick Saban’s Alabama, is an elite offensive line. Until the Trojans can be competitive in the trenches against teams on an even playing field talent-wise, these results will continue.

In that sense, it feels like USC may be at a crossroads. On the one hand, Helton could look to make a change on the offensive line, bringing in a new position coach to get more out of the Trojan linemen.

TRENDING: Studs and Duds from the Cotton Bowl

On the other hand, Helton could stick to his guns, banking on a renewed emphasis in offensive line recruiting and trusting Callaway to field a more complete unit in year three under his tutelage.

That’s up to Helton, but it will no doubt shape the remainder of his tenure at USC.