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Previewing the Cotton Bowl Classic Between the Ohio State Buckeyes and USC Trojans

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Should be an easy win for Ohio State, but it probably might not happen that way

Illinois v Ohio State Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

One thing about a regional sport like college football, it’s very difficult to come to a consensus. However, I think the vast majority of fans and writers that follow the game would have USC and Ohio State in their top 5 programs of all time. All but the most biased would have them in the top 10. These two storied teams have met 23 times, 7 in the Rose Bowl. Not only is this their first non-Rose, Bowl game, it’s in the Cotton Bowl Classic. If you are a sucker for history, this is the type of game that you live for.

Previewing bowl games is always difficult, because of all the factors involved, and the usually small sample of crossover opponents. Another factor is the effort level varies, especially from two programs that expect to contend for national championships. I think a game between storied programs in such a historic setting will help both programs in their competitive efforts. However, I am not going to bother trying to figure out what’s inside the head of a couple hundred 20 year olds, but rather just focus on what I have seen so far.


When The Ohio State Buckeyes Have The Ball

I think the vast majority of fans, Ohio State or otherwise, would be shocked to learn that Ohio State is 5th in the country in points scored. Not only have they faced 5 of the top 23 defenses in the land this season, there was actually a quarterback controversy earlier this season.

I’ll admit, that stat is a little misleading, because there have been struggles on offense. Usually, those struggles are the result of a lack of balance. Even though the offense averages nearly 250 yards per game on the ground, they can’t just line up and smash opponents with 9 man fronts.

The USC defense is giving up 26.3 points per contest, which places it smack dab in between Akron and South Alabama on the list, somewhere too far down for me to count. It’s below 50, that’s the best I can do. More troubling if you are a Trojans fan, is the 158 yards per game on the ground and the 4.4 yards per carry. You can package that however you want, but that’s not a good defense, especially when you throw in that USC has a great offense. They are in shootouts, and giving up those kind of yards on the ground is bad news.

If tendencies hold, Ohio State is going to try and open up the field by throwing early. Then, they’ll get around to smashing it down USC’s throat. If J.T. Barrett connects early, this game is over, at least on this side of the ball.


When the USC Trojans have the Ball

Sam Darnold, wow. Great player. Ronald Jones II, wow. Great player. As you would expect, this is a loaded USC offense with a lot of weapons. However, there is some inexperience on the edges after Steven Mitchell. The offensive line isn’t quite as jelled as some we have seen in the past. When you look at the talent, and the reputations of the PAC 12 defenses they have faced, you expect more than the 34.5 points per game they are averaging.

On the Buckeye side, their defensive line is LOADED again. Their linebackers and secondary are as athletic as they come. However, their back end is relatively inexperienced, and can take bad angles. Against a team as fast as USC, that’s a recipe for disaster.


Players to Watch

Sam Darnold, QB, USC: As the Trojans have opened up more of the playbook and given him more attempts, he is suffering a bit of a sophomore slump in completion percentage and TD/Int ratio. His numbers, 63.7%, 3787 yards, 26 TDs vs 12 touchdowns, and a 151 rating.

Ronald Jones II, RB, USC: The 6’, 200lb junior from Texas is a game breaker and will have some lanes against an inexperienced OSU back end.

J.T. Barrett, QB, OSU: Simply one of the best to line up under center at OSU, if teams still did that sort of thing.

J.K. Dobbins, RB, OSU: His 7.5 yards per carry this, his freshman season remind me of a young Zeke.


Keys to the Contest

  • Ohio State must keep the USC secondary from loading the box and forcing Barrett to beat them with his arm. He can do it, but he can also miss receivers that struggle to get open.
  • USC must keep the OSU defensive line honest. If the Bucks can pin their ears back and go after Darnald, think about this stat. In 2016, Darnald was sacked 6 times. In 2017, 21.
  • Turnovers, because they are always important.

Prediction

Ohio State is a better team this season. They have a better coach. They match up well with the Trojans and should be able to ram the ball down their throat. Their QB is more experienced. The OSU defensive line should be able to create pressure. That being said, USC will still score and this game has a lot of randoms. There could be a load of big plays because the defenses get out of position and the USC secondary is athletic and could force a pick or 5. Ohio State should win 45-28, but this game will have a lot to do with chance. How motivated are the teams? Who wins the turnover battle? Maybe most important, who wins the 50/50 balls? What isn’t up to chance is just how big this game is. There are a load of NFL players on both sides, along with all the tradition. Don’t let that political college football playoff distract you from just how huge a Cotton Bowl between conference champions with the tradition that USC and Ohio State have is.