For the Trojans, the Cotton Bowl was their chance to prove that their regular season wasn’t a fluke.
Though it won 11 games and a Pac-12 championship, most of USC’s wins had come against flimsy conference opponents, critics said. The harp on the eighth-ranked Trojans was that they barely beat inferior teams, that they had lost big to Notre Dame and shouldn’t have lost to Washington State. Even their two “statement” wins — both of which came against Stanford — weren’t too impressive in nature.
Beating Ohio State in front of the bright lights of AT&T Stadium would’ve been redeeming, an opportunity to show the playoff committee why they — not the Buckeyes, and not Alabama — were the team worthy of a playoff spot. Head coach Clay Helton called it their Super Bowl.
So much for that.
Friday’s 24-7 loss to Ohio State summed up USC’s season perfectly, because it was befuddling in every which way. For a team with so much starpower offensively, it put up just 7 points in all and a goose egg in the second half despite outgaining the Buckeyes 413 yards to 277. For a team not necessarily known for its defense, the Trojans did a commendable job holding J.T. Barrett to just 114 yards of offense.
“Whenever you can hold an Ohio State team under 300 yards, if you tell me that before the game, I would say we win,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold said.
Problem was, Darnold and his offense were nowhere to be found. But it wasn’t entirely the quarterback’s fault. Sure, he threw an ill-timed pick six that put USC in a 17-0 hole. And he fumbled the ball twice, squandering prime scoring opportunities.
“When you turn the ball over that much, it’s hard to win games,” he said.
But the problem did not simply lie in Darnold’s ongoing struggles to protect the football. This was an offense given chance after chance by the defense after going down big to recover. Five consecutive drives in the second half, the Trojans forced Ohio State’s vaunted offense to punt. And five straight times, USC failed to put even the tiniest of dents in a 17-point deficit.
“The second half we get it down in the red zone three times and don’t come away with any points,” head coach Clay Helton said. “And that’s the difference in the game.”
There was the fumble at the 12-yard line when Darnold was stripped while trying to throw the ball. There was the 28-yard field goal that freshman placekicker Chase McGrath hit off the right upright. And there was the frustrating final drive that ended with a wild fourth-down throw by Darnold.
Part of it was ineptitude on the Trojans’ end. But the offensive line gave Darnold almost no chance against the monster defensive line that Ohio State sported. At one point, a simple three-man rush was able to sack the USC quarterback.
“They’re the best defense we’ve seen this season,” junior running back Ronald Jones said. “We went in and made a couple of adjustments, but in the end it just wasn’t enough.”
And the story of the game — as Twitter made sure to note — was turnovers, specifically for Darnold. Three more giveaways on Friday brought his season total to 22, which is more than 101 FBS teams.
“I feel like you guys know how different it could have been without those turnovers because I feel like our defense was just playing lights out,” sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. “I felt like they were stopping them on every drive.”
They were, for the entirety of the second half. And we waited, waited and waited some more. For the offense to show up. For Darnold to work his magic once more, to pull out another big bowl win. For the Trojans to show the world that they were better than what their critics limited them to.
Instead, there was no fight. No urgency, no speed-up. The coaches called the game in the second half like USC was ahead by 17, not down by that margin. They let the clock wind down at the end of the third quarter without even getting off a play. They took way too much time to orchestrate a failed comeback attempt.
The offense played like it was facing Oregon State, not Ohio State. It was a microcosm of the 2017 campaign, one that saw USC make consistent mistakes, yet squeak by worse teams because it had superior talent. In the Cotton Bowl, the Buckeyes were more talented, but the Trojans made the same mistakes. And that was the difference.
“We’ve had 11 wins. We’ve won a Pac-12 championship,” Helton said. “We’re proud of those accomplishments. But are we satisfied? No, we’re not. We won’t be satisfied until we win a national championship, and that will be our goal.”
Some picked the Trojans before the season to win the national championship. And on paper, an 11-win season, a conference title and a Cotton Bowl appearance isn’t too shabby. But the eye test, and their bowl performance indicate otherwise.
The Trojans were not a national championship team this season, nor did they deserve to make the playoff. And Friday’s game, in fitting fashion, proved exactly why.