DALLAS – USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast sounded like many other defensive coordinators who have faced J.T. Barrett over the past four years when he was asked Tuesday about how the Trojans would defend against Ohio State’s quarterback in the Cotton Bowl on Friday.
"We just have to play with really good discipline and eyes," Pendergast said. "You have to have somebody accounted for him at all times."
Barrett hasn’t been able to please everyone with his play over the past four years, but as he goes into his final game as Ohio State’s quarterback this week, USC’s defenders have made it clear that Barrett has their respect.
"He knows exactly what he's doing," said USC safety Chris Hawkins. "I applaud him. He's one of the best, I mean, that I've seen. A lot of people like to give him a lot of slag and everything like that. But as a signal-caller and being a leader of their team, he's one of the best I've seen."
Defending Barrett requires discipline, Hawkins said, because of his patience.
"He's very patient," Barrett said. "When they call his number, I've seen defenses try to stop that and he'll audible to another player."
“He's one of the best I've seen.”– Chris Hawkins on J.T. Barrett
USC defensive end Christian Rector, however, said that while J.K. Dobbins has deceptive speed and is elusive, he believes "J.T. really runs the offense and makes them go." USC linebacker Cameron Smith, on the other hand, said he believes Dobbins presents the biggest threat to the Trojans’ defense. Smith also said, though, that Barrett’s dual-threat ability to both run and pass the ball increases the importance for the Trojans to be assignment-sound.
"I don’t think our biggest key is to stop the pass," Smith said. "I want to see us stop the run and J.T. Barrett because I think J.K. Dobbins is the key to their offense right now. But (Barrett’s) ability to mix up in the run game is very important because he’s not going to take off for 60, I’ve seen him run, but he’s going to take 10 yards, 12 yards, 10 yards, eight yards. And so that’s a huge part of their offense."
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While Ohio State’s offense is statistically the best offense (in both points and yards per game) that USC has played this year, and USC’s defense has struggled nonetheless (ranking 62nd in points allowed per game and 77th in yards allowed per game in the Football Bowl Subdivision), Pendergast believes the Trojans have played a number of teams over the past years who have helped them prepare for Ohio State’s offense.
Pendergast said the Buckeyes are "very similar in their concepts in the running game and passing game" to both Penn State, who USC played last season in the Rose Bowl, and Texas – coached by former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman – who the Trojans played in their third game of the year. Pendergast also said Arizona State, who the Trojans held to just 17 points on Oct. 28, is another team within the Pac-12 that has a similar offense.
Out of those three offenses, the only one that has come close to being as statistically prolific as Ohio State this year has been Penn State. Hawkins, however, believes the Buckeyes offense presents even more challenges than Penn State’s, which put up 49 points and 465 yards on the Trojans last season.
"Trace McSorley is very good, but I think J.T. is maybe a little better because he's more experienced. They have [Saquon] Barkley, but, I mean, J.K. Dobbins isn't far behind," Hawkins said. "But I would just say Ohio State is faster than Penn State at receiver, much faster. Every single guy they put in there is either fast or tall, and there's only one tall one. So they're very fast, just the fastest group of receivers that I've seen in my career."