ARLINGTON, Texas – Ohio State was outplayed in some respects in Friday night’s Cotton Bowl against USC.
The Trojans outgained the Buckeyes by 136 yards. Ohio State’s passing defense was vulnerable, allowing 356 yards through the air, while its offense failed to put together consistent drives, especially in the second half, when it did not score at all.
The statistic that ultimately made the difference in Friday’s game, however, was the turnover margin.
Ohio State’s defense forced a season-high four turnovers in Friday’s game, which the Buckeyes turned into three touchdowns, and Ohio State won the game 24-7 as a result.
USC’s offense had more success moving the ball down the field than Ohio State, finishing the game with 413 yards, but the Trojans were unable to finish more than one drive with points, in part because of the Buckeyes’ ability to make plays on the ball, as they forced their final two takeaways – both on strip sacks of USC quarterback Sam Darnold – inside their own 30-yard line.
Ohio State’s offense had minimal success manufacturing drives on its own, finishing the game with only 277 yards and 13 first downs, but the Buckeyes were able to take advantage of their takeaways, turning their first three turnovers into three touchdowns, which proved to be more than enough points to win the game.
After forcing 27 turnovers in 13 games in 2016, Ohio State forced only 20 turnovers in its first 13 games of 2017. That said, the Buckeyes expressed a desire over the course of the season to force more turnovers, and said that they spent time working on trying to force more turnovers with daily drills in practice.
That work paid off on Saturday night.
"I think guys were really prepared," said Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. "They really studied very hard to get ready for this game. And they went out and executed. When you do your job, good things happen."
Senior safety Damon Webb, playing the final game of his Ohio State career, came up with each of the Buckeyes’ first two takeaways.
On USC’s first offensive possession of the game, Webb recovered a fumble forced by cornerback Kendall Sheffield, which led to a J.T. Barrett rushing touchdown.
On USC’s first possession of the second quarter, Webb intercepted a Darnold pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown of his own.
"All the film study, all the hours of practice, it definitely pays off on the field, so you reap what you sow," said Webb, who earned outstanding defensive player honors for his efforts. "Like Coach Schiano said, you keep doing something, it’s going to eventually work for you. We go through the takeaway circuit every day in practice, and we had a strip sack and an interception, so it finally paid off for us."
Ohio State got its third takeaway later in the second quarter, when defensive end Tyquan Lewis forced a Darnold fumble that was recovered by linebacker Jerome Baker, leading to another Barrett rushing touchdown two plays later.
Baker said he believed the Buckeyes buying into one of their oft-repeated mantras was what led to their big day of takeaways on Friday.
"We always preach, I know it’s cliche, but 4 to 6, A to B," Baker said. "Always run to the ball. Even on my recovered fumble, I was just running to the ball and it came out, so just always, just know the play is never over and you can see what happens. Just get turnovers."
“All the film study, all the hours of practice, it definitely pays off on the field, so you reap what you sow.” – Damon Webb
The Buckeyes, who previously had three takeaways in each of their games against Indiana and Michigan State, achieved their season-high in forced turnovers in the fourth quarter when Robert Landers recovered a fumble forced by Jalyn Holmes.
Although Ohio State’s defense allowed more than 300 passing yards for the fourth time season, the four turnovers forced and only seven points allowed made it a good night for the Buckeyes defense against one of the best offenses they faced all year. Making matters even more challenging, the Buckeyes were without one of their best defensive players, junior cornerback Denzel Ward, who announced just minutes prior to the game that he would sit out the Cotton Bowl and declare for the 2018 NFL draft.
"I thought they all stepped up," Schiano said. "Those are, I said it, the best skill we faced all year. And certainly, the quarterback’s a special player, so quite a challenge."
From the other side of the equation, USC's offense certainly could have done a better job protecting the ball to avoid the turnovers that cost the Trojans the game. The Trojans also gave the Buckeyes credit, though, for the way their defense played.
"They were a great defense," said USC wide receiver Deontay Burnett. "They were making great plays all day, trying to strip the ball out and stuff like that."
With their season-ending victory in the Cotton Bowl, in which the Buckeyes also had a 26-yard field goal by Sean Nuernberger in addition to their three touchdowns, Ohio State finishes the 2017 season with a 12-2 record.