Three minutes into the Cotton Bowl, nothing was going right for the Trojans.
On the third snap, redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold had tossed a perfect pass to Deontay Burnett for 16 yards, only to watch the ball fly into the air and into Ohio State arms as the receiver crashed to the ground. In a minute and 12 seconds, quarterback J.T. Barrett marched his offense neatly into the end zone, walking one yard to score the first touchdown of the game.
It was a pattern the team continued throughout the game, as the Trojans’ offense continuously shot itself in the foot on the way to a 24-7 loss. Despite a lights out performance by the defense, the game descended into a bloodbath in the second quarter and grinded to its sullen conclusion as the Trojans fought back for too little, too late.
“The name of the game was turnovers,” head coach Clay Helton said. “We just didn’t finish today.”
The wheels came off in the second quarter, as Ohio State notched a field goal to take a 10-0 lead, then pinned the Trojans deep on the punt. Backed up into his own end zone, Darnold tried a quick fake — shifting his hips and head to the right, then pivoting back and throwing blind to his left — and instead threw the ball straight to a defender. He took off at a dead sprint, trying to cut off the defender, but it was long gone. The Buckeyes took a 17-0 lead, and the USC fans in the stands began to deflate.
It was an off-kilter and off-brand night for the USC offense. Junior running back Ronald Jones II, a Dallas native who entered the game charged to play in his hometown, only carried the ball 12 times for 42 yards on the half. While the offense leaned heavily on the passing game, Darnold threw 12-for-22, taking three sacks as he notched 170 yards. In eight drives, the offense didn’t make its way into the red zone once.
The defense stood as tall as possible throughout the first half. The unit held Ohio State to 237 yards, limiting Barrett to 71 passing yards. Rasheem Green and Uchenna Nwosu each notched a sack, while John Houston and Isaiah Langley led at the half with six tackles apiece.
“It doesn’t matter if our [offense] makes a mistake, we have to play calm,” Green said. “It doesn’t matter if the field’s short or the field’s long, we have to do our job.”
The pressure of holding down the line after two fumbles and a pick-six was a weight too heavy for the defense to bear. Barrett gashed the Trojans on the ground, sprinting for a 23 yard touchdown to put the Buckeyes up 24-0. Although the defense forced several three-and-outs, they were answered by rickety offensive drives that ended with the same dismal march of the kicking unit onto the field. Punter Reid Budrovich did little to help the Trojans, averaging under 35 yards per kick and sending one out of bounds for a penalty.
A rare bright spot came in the dwindling minutes of the second quarter, when K.J. Hill muffed a punt for Ohio State, sending the USC special teams unit scrambling. For a moment, it was almost a slap-stick scene, as the ball bounced and skittered across the grass, slipping out of the hands of several tumbling Trojans.
Marvell Tell finally flopped onto the ball on the 15-yard line, pounding it into the turf as he shouted in excitement, and the offense lined up in the red zone for the first time. The touchdown came easily, set up by a pass to Daniel Imatorbhebhe and clinched by a one-yard rush from Jones. With points on the board and the lead cut to 17 points, a small sense of hope seemed to inflate the student section in the final two minutes of the half.
That hope grew when the Trojans forced a three-and-out, headlined by a brutal sack by Green to drag Barrett back six yards. But a strong kick from Ohio State pinned the Trojans on their six-yard line to attempt a full-field drive in 59 seconds. Darnold botched a pass, and Helton elected to run the ball and the clock to finish the half.
The second half stood as a testament to the defense, which shut out the Buckeyes offense and held a team that averages over 500 yards a game to a measly 277. Linebacker Cameron Smith finished the night with 10 tackles, while Nwosu roped up Barrett again to finish with two sacks and four solo tackles.
“It was just it being our last game together,” Nwosu said. “As a team, as a brotherhood and as a family, we just had to fight together. No matter what the scoreboard says, play like it’s 0-0.”
But a lack of offensive killed any chance of a comeback, as Darnold and the Trojans continued to stall at midfield and fail to find the red zone. The offensive line struggle to hold the Ohio State defensive line, which consistently swarmed Darnold on blitzes, barely giving the quarterback time to scan the field before he took pressure. By the end of the night, Darnold took nine sacks.
“I told him in there in front of the team, I thought he was a warrior tonight,” Helton said. “To get off the ground that many times and make the plays that he did, he showed his true class and character.”
And even when the Trojans glimpsed the chance to score, it remained out of reach. In the fourth quarter, Chase McGrath’s field goal attempt ricocheted off the right post, sending the kicker to the ground as he grabbed his head in frustration. A pass interference call in the end zone gave Darnold another chance in the end zone, only for a blitzing lineman to swat the ball from his hand for yet another fumble.
“Whenever you turn over the ball that much, it’s hard to win games,” Darnold said. “It’s just the little things. There was a lot of stuff where we shot ourselves in our foot.”
The game ended, almost fittingly, with a fight. As Darnold scrambled towards the sideline on the team’s final drive, he took a hard hit out of bounds, resulting in a personal foul. But Aca’Cedric Ware flew at the defender with a push, and several Buckeyes followed.
Darnold held back one Ohio State player, but soon a scrum of players formed, shouting and shoving on the sidelines. Jamel Cook earned an ejection from the game for coming off the bench and taking a swing at another player before the two teams were dragged apart.
“Tempers are going to flare in that situation, especially when your quarterback’s over there,” Helton said. “There’s nobody that’s maybe more loved on this football team than Sam. And it was just in the heat of the game, both sides. Unfortunate, but it is what it is.”
The end of the game marked the end of a stumbling season for a team stocked with talent that fell just short of its expectations. It left many uncertainties for the team, headlined by the questions surrounding the fate of Darnold, who still insists that he hasn’t decided whether or not to declare for the NFL Draft.
But as the team trudged to the locker room, recording its second blowout loss in as many seasons on this field, one thing was certain — AT&T Stadium is not a good place to be a Trojan.