USC may not be in Pasadena, but the Cotton Bowl Classic smells like roses.
The No. 8 Trojans face off against No. 5 Ohio State Friday night in a showdown between the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions and a pair of 11-2 teams.
The matchup would traditionally be in Pasadena, Calif. if the Rose Bowl weren’t acting as a College Football Playoff semifinal this year. Instead, the two historical powerhouses will face off at 5:30 p.m. on Friday at a modern sporting jewel: AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. — one of the most expensive arenas ever built, which can house north of 100,000 fans.
It’s a fitting venue to showcase a new chapter of a rich rivalry. The Trojans and Buckeyes met in three consecutive Rose Bowls between 1973 and 1975 (seven total), and USC currently boasts a 13-9-1 mark over Friday’s opponent, including wins in its last seven tilts against the Buckeyes.
But a return to Jerry World presents another opportunity for the Trojans: a chance to erase the painful memory of the program’s first-ever visit to the stadium last year with raucous celebration.
“We all remember the feeling and know exactly how [the 52-6 loss to Alabama] felt — probably the worst loss a lot of us have taken,” junior linebacker Cam Smith said. “So it means something to us to be back here. It’s significant how far we’ve come.”
USC will have to show that progress against an Ohio State team with a wealth of experience and momentum. The pregame hype may center on the Trojans’ signal-caller, but Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett is a national champion and was starting for Urban Meyer’s squad when redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold was still in high school. And Barrett is in the midst of his best season yet, passing for a career-high 35 touchdowns with just nine interceptions — adding 732 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground for good measure.
Barrett spearheads an Ohio State offense that averages 42.5 points per game (sixth in the nation). He goes to a wide variety of targets, with four receivers catching five or more scores this season (Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill lead the team in receiving yards but have caught just three touchdowns apiece). The air attack feeds off a 15th-ranked ground game. Freshman J.K. Dobbins has amassed 1,364 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on just 181 touches, good for 7.5 yards per carry— better than Jones’ 6.1 YPC clip for USC — and Mike Weber matches Barrett with 10 rushing scores this season.
“All-Americans all over the field,” senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu said. “[Staying] assignment-sound and doing your job is going to be a key part of this game.”
The defense boasts formidable talent and depth as well, led by defensive end Nick Bosa, brother of former Ohio State standout Joey Bosa. The younger Bosa has proved himself as deadly a pass rusher as the current Los Angeles Chargers star, leading Ohio State with seven sacks.
“Without question, the most complete team we faced,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Extremely well-coached on both sides of the football. We’ll have our hands full Friday night.”
The Trojans were denied a spot in the playoff, so a Rose Bowl repeat isn’t in the cards this year — and neither is the national title run that many dreamed of leading into the season. But a win this weekend would feel nearly as good.
“We’re going to treat it as a playoff game,” junior running back Ronald Jones II said. “[The Buckeyes] are, too.”
Despite a campaign that perhaps felt defined by lowlights (two heartbreaking losses: a narrow defeat at Washington State and an embarrassing, 49-14 drubbing at Notre Dame) rather than highlights, the Trojans are primed to put the ribbon on a magnificent follow-up season to their thrilling 2016 — which began with the emergence of Darnold and ended with confetti in Pasadena. They are conference champions for the first time in nine years. USC won 10 games last year; the tally can rise to 12 this season with a victory against Ohio State.
“That’s special: A 12th win has only happened four times in 125 years for USC football,” Helton said. “It is our Super Bowl.”
And in their Super Bowl, the Trojans’ hopes will ride on a handful of men who could be playing their final games in cardinal and gold. Darnold is an elite NFL prospect, tossing 3,787 yards and 26 scores in the follow up to his breakout season. His overall numbers took a step back: Darnold’s 31:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio fell to 26:12 this year as he struggled with turnovers, but he also led impressive comebacks over Texas and Utah while steering USC to a Pac-12 title. There is a feeling that, when push comes to shove, Darnold will deliver.
“He did it last year in the Rose Bowl,” Nwosu said. “He’s done it all year and all last year and became a starter and took over. Sam is a great player. We believe in him. He has our full support.”
Jones will complement Darnold’s arm on the ground. He has found paydirt 18 times this year and rides a five-game streak of rushing for at least 100 yards and one touchdown. Captains Nwosu, Smith and redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins will lead the way defensively. The Trojans have been prone to giving up the big play this season, and in order to contain the high-powered Buckeye offense, the captains are emphasizing playing as a unit.
“It’s really important for us to play with great eyes on this game and be disciplined and play as a defense, not as an individual,” Smith said. “And over the last ten games or so, we’ve become more sound and playing as a unit and less going out and trying to make plays.”
Darnold, Jones and Smith are juniors, but with the NFL Draft calling their names (and for Darnold, possibly first overall), the trio could very well opt to leave school early. With the deadline to declare still weeks away, though, the players remained focused squarely on the Buckeyes, despite being bombarded with questions about their professional futures.
“I haven’t been thinking about [the draft] a ton,” Darnold said. “I’ve been really focused on Ohio State.”
Nevertheless, the potential top pick admitted he was excited for what lies ahead of the Cotton Bowl. And he trusts his own judgment, just as he does on the field.
“Honestly, yeah — [going No. 1] would be awesome,” Darnold said. “Life is kind of moving really fast right now. So I’ve made some big decisions, and coming to USC was one of them. And it was a really great decision.”
But for now, the next big decision can wait. With one more victory on Friday, everything may just come up roses on its own.