"If you let that young man with those receivers just stand back and throw, you're not going to stop them."
Though Sam Darnold may not have finished the 2017 Cotton Bowl with either the result or stat line he wanted, Urban Meyer certainly came away impressed with what they saw from USC's star quarterback.
"We knew going into the game, obviously, he's going to be a top-five pick, the quarterback we just faced," Meyer said after the game. "He's every bit of it. I was watching him warm up and going 'whoa.'"
With one last chance to impress professional scouts and make his case to be the first player to shake Roger Goodell's hand this spring, Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano made sure Darnold didn't have the kind of performance he'd hoped for. Despite playing without standout cornerback Denzel Ward, the Buckeyes held the explosive Trojan offense to only seven points, which only came after a muffed punt gave them the ball inside the red zone.
As anyone who watched the game knows, the Buckeyes held the Trojans in check thanks to a tremendous amount of pressure brought against Darnold all night long, leading to four turnovers and eight sacks, the most produced by the Silver Bullets in one game in a decade. Although Schiano's unit has taken its share of criticism this year, especially after their uncharacteristically awful performance in Iowa City, the Ohio State defense didn't have to try anything new to make Darnold's night a miserable one.
Instead of unveiling a completely new look in hopes of confusing the Trojans, Schiano's troops lined up in their base 4-3 under alignment with two deep safeties, dropping free safety Jordan Fuller into the middle of the field and playing man-coverage for the vast majority of the evening.
Even without Ward, one of the best cover men in the nation, cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield proved more than capable against the Trojans' outstanding receivers. As a result, Darnold was regularly forced to hold the ball longer than normal with no one open downfield.
Though he had an up-and-down season and drew criticism from some for drawing multiple penalties while in coverage, Sheffield stepped up in Ward's absence. The former blue-chip recruit more than looked the part as he blanketed Trojan receivers and broke up a season-high four passes.
That tight, man-coverage was responsible for at least one of Darnold's fumbles, as the quarterback was forced to hold onto the ball far too long and was stripped from behind by end Jalyn Holmes.
Of course, Darnold was forced to drop back so often thanks to a running game that was shut down from the opening whistle. Though the fabled "Rushmen" defensive ends received much of the publicity for their work in the USC backfield on this evening, interior players like Robert Landers also proved too quick for the Trojan offensive line on this evening.
Landers took advantage of increased playing time due to Dre'Mont Jones' injury, which kept the star tackle sidelined for the second half. With starting nose tackle Tracy Sprinkle's eligibility now exhausted, "Bullet BB" made a strong case for the spot next fall by showing up all over the field in Dallas with plays like these, showing a lightning-fast first step off the ball.
Of course, Landers wasn't the only Buckeye defensive linemen to beat his blocker and make a play in the pocket. Tyquan Lewis forced Darnold's first fumble by beating the right guard with a simple rip move, never allowing the QB to get rid of the ball before his protection collapsed.
Nick Bosa came away with a sack of his own when the Trojans inexplicably asked a tight end and running back to block the big ten defensive linemen of the year in pass protection.
Again, many of the 14 tackles-for-loss recorded by the Buckeyes that night were the simple result of Ohio State defensive linemen winning individual battles against the Trojan front, something USC head coach Clay Helton noted after the game.
"Well, I'm going to credit -- their defensive front is so talented," Helton said. "And you watch them -- you see their stats on paper, you watch it on film, but until you see it in person -- blown away by not only their talent but how well coached they are. We didn't have a lot of mental assignments tonight. What we had was just physical beats."
That doesn't mean Schiano didn't have a few tricks up his sleeve, however. In third-and-long passing situations, the Buckeyes dialed up a Tampa-2 zone that dropped linebacker Malik Harrison into a deep middle zone, forcing Darnold to find an open window against eight defenders in coverage.
Even when dropping lineman Tyquan Lewis into coverage from this look, the Buckeyes were still able to get pressure thanks to a simple loop stunt from end Sam Hubbard.
While the "Rushmen" nickel package created plenty of havoc with just a three or four-man rush, the Buckeyes still brought extra pressure from time to time to keep the Trojans guessing. A Crossfire blitz that brought both linebackers through the A gaps proved too much for the USC pass protection, leading to a sack for Harrison.
But the most important pressure Schiano called that night came at the beginning of the second quarter, as a blitz from middle linebacker Tuf Borland gave Darnold a false cue for where to distribute the ball on a run-pass option, leading to the game's biggest play.
After the game, Damon Webb noted,"It was a 4x1 to the field and we brought a pressure, so I knew the quarterback might try to pull the ball and try to throw the slant and I just jumped it. Coach Schiano called a great defense for me to do that."
Despite this onslaught of pressure, Darnold still managed to complete some incredible throws, dropping the ball into microscopic windows where only his man could make the catch despite good coverage.
He also kept countless plays alive with his feet, finding receivers downfield on scramble drills and extending multiple drives.
But overall, the Buckeye defense was too much for Darnold and the Trojans on this evening.
According to Helton, "They held our run game in check. We've always had issues when our run game does not go. And when it was passing situations, they got to the quarterback. I credit Sam. I told him in there in front of the team, I thought he was a warrior tonight. To get off the ground that many times and make the plays that he did, he showed his true class and character.
"But credit that Ohio State front. I was blown away by them tonight, and they're truly a talented bunch."