ARLINGTON —With Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott on Ohio State’s sidelines, USC really needed 1995 Cotton Bowl hero Keyshawn Johnson — so gained a record 222 yards receiving during a 55-14 dismantling of Texas Tech and the University of Southern California’s only appearance — on and off the field.
The result 20 years removed from its only Classic win, though, was a reverse of history, as the Buckeyes defeated redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold and the Trojans 24-7 Friday night at AT&T Stadium.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot and it led to points and separation early in the game. Anytime you have three or four turnovers that’s going to make a difference,” said Head Coach Clay Helton, who saw his team down 17-0 after a J.T. Barrett 1-yard run, a 26-yard field goal by Sean Nurenberger, and a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown by Damon Webb.
Webb and Jerome Baker accounted for two more Trojans’ turnovers and Barrett’s 28-yard run to score the Buckeyes’ 24rd point seemingly put an early nail in the coffin.
“We knew we were going to have to play perfect football being three scores down,” Helton continued. “It was not finishing in the red zone, especially when you’re facing a team that allows 290 yards a game and there are yards [being gained] all over the place.”
The Trojans gained 201 yards in the first half, including 170 from the right arm of Darnold and 34 and a touchdown from the legs of former McKinney North running back Ronald Jones II. They may have been held scoreless in the first 30 minutes of play if not for a muffed punt, a shortened field, and Jones’ rumble.
Barrett’s 179th yard gave him 12,701 yards of total offense in his career and broke Drew Brees’ Big Ten record. He finished 11 of 17 for 114 yards passing and rushed 16 times for 88 yards and two touchdowns and won Sanford Trophy, presented to the Cotton Bowl’s best offensive player.
“Since I was little I looked up to Drew Brees,” said Barrett, who won his first Cotton Bowl two hours south of his hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas, noting the benefit of having a short field on both scoring drives. “I’m just honored and blessed to have the coaches and players and mentors around me that I have had.”
Webb earned the game’s Knight Trophy, presented to the best defensive player.
While USC struggled to sustain drives and convert a yardage advantage into actual, tangible points, Barrett and his and his Buckeyes took the “less is more” route. The Ohio State signal-caller amassed 129 total yards and completed passes to only three receivers.
Darnold, who broke Carson Palmer’s all-time single season record for passing yards (3,942), as well as Jones (19 rush, 64 yards, TD) and leading receiver Deonta Burnett (12 rec, 139 yards) couldn’t help cut the score to single digits by the end of the third quarter.
Neither could Chase McGrath, who saw his 28-yard field goal attempt clang off the right upright with little more than 13 minutes left in the fourth — the third of only five times USC reached red zone territory.
“Our defense was dominating and relentless against an excellent quarterback,” said Head Coach Urban Meyer, who won his first bowl game since leading teams to back-to-back-to-back victories between 2015 and 2016. “Especially that young man and one that’s going to be a top five [NFL Draft] pick.”
The Trojans outgained Ohio State 413-277 in total yards and Darnold finished 26 of 44 for 356 yards, but Darnold accounted for three of the four USC turnovers via two fumbles and a costly interception. He was also sacked eight times — including 2 1/2 by Sam Hubbard and 1 1/2 Nick Bosa — during the loss.
Ohio State’s sack total tied it with Nebraska’s 2009 Big 12 Championship Game effort at AT&T Stadium. And while the Cotton Bowl marks the last game of Barrett’s collegiate career, it could also be the last for Darnold, who is projected to be a high first-round draft pick by multiple draft experts.
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