Ohio State didn't let missing out on the College Football Playoff stand in the way of capping off its season in impressive fashion with a 24-7 win over USC in the 2017 Cotton Bowl Classic.
After beating Wisconsin on Dec. 2 to win the Big Ten championship, the Buckeyes were hoping their resume was strong enough to warrant a playoff selection as one of the top four teams in the country. They wound up at No. 5, leaving them with a matchup against Pac-12 champion USC.
Ohio State's rushing attack methodically picked apart the USC defense with 163 yards on 38 carries, including 66 yards and two touchdowns for quarterback J.T. Barrett.
If this was Darnold's final in-game audition for NFL teams, he didn't do much to dissuade the detractors who highlight his poor decision-making skills. His stat line included 356 yards on 26-of-45 passing with no touchdowns and one interception.
Ohio State safety Damon Webb had one of the easiest pick-six plays a defensive back can get on this play in the second quarter:
Only 1 other FBS player has more than Sam Darnold's 20 turnovers. His latest turned into 6 points for the Buckeyes. https://t.co/oandDIRPqF2017-12-30 02:40:01
Michael Lombardi of The Ringer pointed out some of the specific issues that were plaguing Darnold:
Michael Lombardi @mlombardiNFL
That’s ain’t on the receiver. That’s on Darnold. He thought it was cover 2. It wasn’t2017-12-30 02:32:14
Michael Lombardi @mlombardiNFL
Darnold has no idea how to reset protections. And a pro coach is messing with him.2017-12-30 03:09:37
It's easy to single out Darnold's shortcomings in this game because he's the highest-profile player on either team, but Joel Klatt of Fox Sports noted nothing was going right for USC's offense:
Joel Klatt @joelklatt
Sam Darnold is playing poorly...The protection is horrendous...The WR's are jogging and have no urgency...The offensive game plan is painfully predictable...other than that USC is playing fine2017-12-30 03:12:59
Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports had some fun at the expense of Darnold and the NFL team he could end up with if he declares for the 2018 draft:
Dan Wetzel @DanWetzel
So far, Sam Darnold looks exactly like a Cleveland Browns quarterback2017-12-30 02:52:15
As bad as things turned out for Darnold in the bowl game, he did become the first quarterback in USC history to surpass 4,000 passing yards in a season during the game.
The start to this game was a microcosm of what was to come. USC received the opening kickoff before turning the ball over when Deontay Burnett was stripped by Kendall Sheffield after a 21-yard gain. Ohio State scored five plays later and never looked back.
Given where Ohio State hoped to be after winning the Big Ten title, Meyer emphasized his team wasn't looking at this game as some sort of consolation prize.
"Our job is to go win the conference championship and go win a bowl game," Meyer told reporters. "I'm not sure 'tarnish' is the right word. I would be disappointed and move on to next year. We're going to move forward. We don't look back. We're going to do all we can to win this game."
Barrett Sallee of CBS Sports did note Friday's game wasn't an indication the College Football Playoff needs to expand to include more teams:
Barrett Sallee @BarrettSallee
No, Ohio State housing USC is not a sign that the CFP should expand. It’s a sign that Ohio State is housing USC. That’s it and that’s all. Nothing more.2017-12-30 03:00:32
There was no tarnishing things because the Buckeyes never let up against a USC team that looked like it wanted to be doing anything else. They limited Trojans running back Ronald Jones II to 19 carries and 64 yards.
Former Ohio State receiver Michael Thomas had some fun at USC's expense by putting the entire Pac-12 on notice:
Michael Thomas @Cantguardmike
😂😂😂 PAC - 12 friendly2017-12-30 02:53:41
The final score does mask a strong performance by the Trojans defense. They held Ohio State to 277 total yards and didn't allow a point over the final 35 minutes of game time.
USC still had a successful season, despite this bitter ending. The Trojans won 11 games and a conference championship for the first time since 2008. Head coach Clay Helton has the program among the nation's elite, though the Cotton Bowl showed there is still work to be done.
While Darnold still has to decide if he's leaving USC, this was Barrett's final game after four years at Ohio State. He ended his collegiate career by becoming the Big Ten's all-time leader in total yards, surpassing the previous mark held by Drew Brees (12,692).
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Meyer also joined an exclusive club among active coaches with his latest bowl victory:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Urban Meyer's 11th bowl win ties Nick Saban and Kyle Whittingham for most by active FBS coaches. Whittingham picked up his 11th win earlier this week...Saban will get a chance to surpass the two when Alabama plays on New Year's Day. https://t.co/1mzT75QCT52017-12-30 05:18:43
Meyer's ability to reload Ohio State's roster every year has made it the envy of virtually every program in the country. He also showed his talent as a head coach once again this year after a stunning 55-24 loss against Iowa on Nov. 4.
The Buckeyes won each of their last five games following that defeat, including three against teams ranked in the Top 16 of the final College Football Playoff rankings (Michigan State, Wisconsin, USC).
There figures to be a lot of talent turnover for Meyer to deal with heading into 2018, but if this game and history are any indication, he will have Ohio State among the favorites to make a playoff run.