A Cotton Bowl short on drama did not lack confetti Friday night.
Workers at AT&T Stadium blew so much into the air above the No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes as they celebrated a 24-7 victory over No. 8 Southern California, Urban Meyer, J.T. Barrett and everyone else will be picking it out of their hair for days. That’s a small price to pay for hoisting a trophy this program needed to erase the pain of a Fiesta Bowl defeat a year ago and to prove that maybe this team belonged in the College Football Playoff after all.
» PHOTOS: Ohio State wins Cotton Bowl
For whatever it’s worth, Ohio State clinched the title of “Best Team Not In The Playoff,” while closing the chapter on a senior class that first made its mark in the national championship season of 2014.
“It was a great win for Ohio State,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who improved to 11-3 in his career in bowl games. “We’ll be a top-five team, Big Ten champs. We just had every senior say a few words. And I can’t get enough of those guys. They’re everything that you want in a young person. They lead the team. They live right off the field. And, obviously, they’re winners. They won a lot of games here, and they’re champions.”
Here are three reasons Ohio State (12-2) beat the Trojans (11-3) for the first time since 1974, ending a seven-game losing streak in the series:
1. Experienced quarterback: Barrett, a fifth-year senior, went out a winner in his final game. He closed his career with a record of 38-6 as a starter. No Ohio State quarterback has won more games.
The game mirrored Barrett’s career. He didn’t play his best, completing 11 of 17 passes for 114 yards and rushing 16 times for 66 yards, but he got the job done. He got the Buckeyes on the board with a 1-yard run in the first quarter and gave them a 24-0 lead with a 28-yard run late in teh second quarter.
Barrett leaves with almost every Ohio State passing record. He set one more Big Ten record Friday, passing Purdue legend Drew Brees to become the conference’s career leader in total offense. Barrett finished his career with 12,697 yards.
“God has definitely blessed me and my family for the opportunity to be at Ohio State,” Barrett said. “I’m grateful for coaches, like coach Meyer. He can really be hard on me. But at the end of the day, he’s very honest. And I think that’s something great about Ohio State. They’re honest. I mean, not everybody wants honesty, but he’s very honest with me. And at the end of the day, I knew he was going to do right by not only myself but also the guys in the locker room. So I’m very blessed and thankful for that.”
2. Dominant defense: The Buckeyes recorded season highs in sacks (8), tackles for a loss (14) and turnovers (4). USC’s Sam Darnold threw for 356 yards but threw a pick six to Damon Webb and lost a fumble as well.
The Trojans committed three turnovers in the first half, allowing Ohio State to build a 24-7 halftime lead. Neither team scored in the second half. Ohio State’s longest drive in the second half was 33 yards.
Sam Hubbard led Ohio State with 2½ sacks. Nick Bosa had 1½. Wayne grad Robert Landers had one of his best games, recording two tackles and recovering a fumble late in the game.
“Offense didn’t play very well, but our defense was dominant and controlled the line of scrimmage,” Meyer said. “We knew going into the game, obviously, (Darnold’s) going to be a top-five pick. He’s every bit of it. I was watching him warm up and going, ‘Whoa.’ If you let that young man with those receivers just stand back and throw, you’re not going to stop them. Our defensive line and Larry Johnson and his group was phenomenal.”
3. Deep roster: Just before the game, Ohio State announced All-American cornerback Denzel Ward would not play. He decided to enter the NFL Draft and to skip the game to avoid the risk of injury. He watched the game from the sideline in his uniform top.
Ward decided on the day of the game not to play, according to an Ohio State press release. He explained his decision on Twitter.
“At the end of the day, I feel this is the best decision for my family and I,” Ward wrote.
Ward’s absence didn’t matter. The Buckeyes still dominated the USC offense, which scored its only touchdown after a fumbled punt by K.J. Hill at the Ohio State 15-yard line.
“My mindset was just the next man up,” said Webb, whose interception return gave Ohio State a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. “I know we’ve got a lot of young guys that was ready to play. When we found out Denzel couldn’t play, we were just the next man up. We lose first rounders every year, and that’s just the mindset we got here. Jeff Okudah, Damon (Arnette) and Kendall (Sheffield) did a tremendous job today. So I really appreciate them.”