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IMHO Saturday special Cotton Bowl edition: Turned over in Texas

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think.

IMHO – Part 1: As mom would say, “A leopard doesn’t change its spots” or “A tiger doesn’t change its stripes.” And these insightful comments certainly apply to the 2017 Pac-12 champion and the No. 8 USC Trojans (11-3), who played a Cotton Bowl first half like many first halves during the 2017 regular season: Turnovers, fumbles, inconsistent offense, and did we mention not being ready to perform in prime time on the national stage? Despite a valiant defensive performance by the Trojans and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, which shut out Ohio State in the second half, the offense of head coach Clay Helton and his offensive coordinator Tee Martin couldn’t consistently deal with Ohio State’s vaunted defensive front – not to mention the players trying to execute the aforementioned offense. The Trojans’ first half debacle was a self-destruction derby, thanks to three killer turnovers, which turned to points. So, when it was over, it all added up to getting run by opportunistic and No. 5 Ohio State, 24-7, in the 82nd Cotton Bowl Classic in Arlington, Texas.

IMHO –Part 2: On a positive note, the Trojans led in most of the statistical categories, but the only numbers that count are the scoreboard numbers. Well, the Buckeyes did outrush the Trojans (163-57 yds.). However, the Men of Troy had their opportunities (413-277 yds. total offense), but were futile in the red zone (1 of 4). The Buckeyes’ nearly mistake-free victory at “Jerry’s World” didn’t leave much doubt to the superior team. Just ask the 67,510 indoor witnesses. The Trojans’ inability to consistently contain dual-threat quarterback (J.T. Barrett), the physicality of Ohio State, critical penalty flags, questionable SEC officiating, and unfortunately another poor first half turnover performance by All-Pac-12 quarterback Sam Darnold, turned into a recipe for disaster. Lost in the disappointing performance by Darnold, however, was the fact that No. 14 became the first USC quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season, thanks to his Cotton Bowl passing yardage (356 yds.) If one game helps in deciding an early NFL draft entry, Darnold needs to strongly consider coming back and refining his game. For all his greatness, Sam needs another season of seasoning, but we all know how much money is on the line if he elects to enter this spring’s NFL draft.

IMHO – Part 3: So, the Trojans finish the season at 11-3, successful in terms of being 2017 Pac-12 Champions. However, if the Men of Troy are ever going to return to their halcyon days of national titles, they will need to dramatically increase the consistency of their manliness on the offensive and defensive lines in order not to be outmuscled by physical challengers like Ohio State, Notre Dame, or Alabama. These are the type of programs that await them in the CFP, and right now they are not ready for the national stage.

Bottom line: The loss to Ohio State again reemphasizes there is still much work to be done, and there is no question that Trojans’ athletic director Lynn Swann will do his homework and encourage or demand that Clay Helton address some obvious issues – both on and off the field. If you’re looking for a silver lining in the disappointing loss to the Buckeyes, it’s that the Trojans were one win away from a 12-win season, won the Pac-12 for the first time since 2008, and are continuing to build the roster and program to potentially elite status. The key word is potential, which means unproven talent.

IMHO offensively

Quarterback: Despite the final passing yardage, it was a nightmare night for Sam Darnold against Ohio State, probably the worst of his illustrious career. All three of his first half turnovers led to Ohio State points. The first half for Sam was a microcosm of his turnover issues, and Ohio State knew what to do with each post-Christmas gift. If there’s a compelling reason for No. 14 to return to USC to refine his game, the Cotton Bowl provided the incentive. Of course, getting sacked eight times can get to any quarterback.

Running backs: No question that tailback Ronald Jones ll (photo above) is one of the most explosive running backs in the country. However, when there are few holes to run through (64 yds.), even a RoJo is reduced to pedestrian status, although he did have a 1-yard TD score. It’s doubtful, however, that even with only 64 yards rushing, his NFL draft status suffered. The gathering of scouts in attendance at AT&T Stadium know what this young man can do if he is given room to run.

Receivers: Well, things didn’t start out well for the receivers when Deontay Burnett fumbled a reception early in the game that led to Ohio State’s short TD drive of 19 yards. However, the receivers as a whole got better as the game wore on, and Burnett finished with 139 receiving yards.

Offensive line: What’s there to say? They gave up eight sacks. The Trojans’ O-line was challenged in all phases of line play by a Buckeyes’ D-line that lived up to its billing as one of the best – if not the best – in America. The fact that Ohio State controlled the Trojans’ offensive line was expected, but you still have to hand it to the talent along the OSU front. They are all NFL bound.

Offensive bottom line: Turnovers, sacks, fumbles lost (2), and red zone problems.

IMHO defensively

The defensive front: A really nice job of containing JT Barrett the best they could. Barrett had just 66 net yards rushing, although he did strike for a 28-yard scoring scamper and a modest 1-yard plunge to paydirt. DE Rasheem Green had a sack of Barrett. Against a tough Ohio State offensive line, the front certainly didn’t embarrass themselves at all.

Linebackers: Other than getting caught on the edge on Barrett’s long scoring run, it was a great night for senior outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who had to impress the NFL scouts in attendance. Uchenna had two sacks and two tackles for losses and showed the type of quickness off the edge that will make him a wealthy man in time. John Houston Jr. had eight tackles, and was around the ball when needed.

Secondary: The much maligned secondary actually held their own against Ohio State’s athletic receivers. They didn’t give up a passing touchdown and held the penalties to a minimum. Ohio State had just 114 yards passing, a credit to the secondary work.  

Defensive bottom line: The defense gave the offense a number of chances in the second half to get back in the game, but the offense just couldn’t puncture the Ohio State defense. In the first half, the Trojans’ offense created difficult situations with the turnovers and that was basically the ballgame. If somebody told you the defense would hold Ohio State to 24-points, which is misleading because seven of those points were a Sam Darnold pick-six in the second quarter, you’d probably would think USC would win the game. The Buckeyes had only one concerted drive, a second quarter 83-yard drive that resulted in a 26-yard field goal.

IMHO special teams

Special teams bottom line: It was that kind of night on special teams when redshirt freshman Chase McGrath missed a critical fourth quarter field goal that hit the right upright and bounced away. In terms of kickoff returns, Velus Jones had one exciting return on a night of uneventful returns, and punt returns were about the same without anybody breaking one. Special teams were not a positive factor in the game, although punter Reid Budrovich did execute some exceptional direction punting as part of his 34.3 average in the game.

Tackling the issues: Trojans junior linebacker Cameron Smith led the Trojans with 10 tackles.

The infirmary: Michael Pittman (thumb).

The quote book…

Clay Helton comments: “Really good game by Ohio State. Credit Coach (Urban (Meyer), his staff, and those players. I thought they played an excellent football game. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot in this game. I don’t think – anytime that you turn the ball over three times, especially two in the negative yardage area, you’re putting a hurt on your defense, and it led to points early in the game and a separation early in the game.”

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments – Part 2: “The name of the game was, in the first half, we had turnovers. Didn’t really get our run game started. And in the second, we get it down in the red zone three times and don’t come away with any points, and that’s the difference in the game.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: “Credit our seniors. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them for the foundation that they have laid. And I can’t tell you how proud I am of the effort the kids played with tonight.”

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer comments: “USC is a heck of a football team. Their defense really did a good job against us. Our defensive line won that game. And secondary. That quarterback (Sam Darnold), I have a lot of respect for him, but the best way to disrupt a quarterback is get after him and we did.”

Meyer comments – Part 2: “We’ve got the best D – Line coach in America and he had them ready to rock and roll. You saw what I saw. I mean, if you don’t let him (Darnold) set his feet you have a chance. You saw at the end of the game that quarterback never set his feet.”

Sam speaks: On what happened to the Trojans’ offense against Ohio State, quarterback Sam Darnold said, “Turnovers. Whenever you turn over the ball that much, it’s hard to win games. I made a bad read on the pick-six. I shouldn’t have thrown it, obviously. He jumped inside of the receiver right after the ball was snapped, and I didn’t see him. And it was a bad play on my part.”

Sam speaks – Part 2: “Then the strip fumbles. When I’m in the pocket, those are tough. And then, yeah, it’s just little things. Coach said it to our whole team. We’re going to watch the film, and one little thing is going make or break a whole play. They obviously have a really good defensive line. They’re probably the best I’ve played. But our O-line for the most part did a really good job of picking everything up. I just missed a couple of throws, like I said.”

The decision: On a timetable for deciding to turn pro and enter the draft, Sam Darnold said, “Just talking to my family, talking to coaches, people who have been in my position before. And that’s kind of how I’ll go about it.”

Defensive satisfaction: Asked how pleased he was with the defense’s effort, junior linebacker Cameron Smith said, “I’m always proud of our defense. I think we prepared really well, and there comes a time in games when your back is against the wall. And I think it’s our job to answer that and get the ball back in our offenses’ hands. For the most part, I think we played with great energy.”

Green time: On slowing down Ohio State’s offense, Trojans junior All-Pac-12 defensive lineman Rasheem Green said, “We just had to do what we did in practice. We just had to do our job and know where the back is, where the tight end is, know what our job is, and have trust in our teammates left and right. Trying to contain (Ohio State quarterback J.T.) Barrett is pretty tough. He’s a good athlete and the guy has been playing for a long time and he’s pretty smart. We have to do our job to keep him contained.”  

RoJo: In assessing what happened against the Ohio State defense, Trojans All-Pac-12 tailback Ronald Jones ll said, “Easy. Turnover. We hurt ourselves and you can’t do that against good teams. When we’re not out here executing and doing what we do, you know, stuff like that is going to happen.”

RoJo – Part 2:
“It kind of just the (Ohio State) speed up the edges. They’re the best defense we’ve seen this season. We went in and made a couple of adjustments, but in the end, it just wasn’t enough.”

Taking accountability: Looking back at his turnover and if Ohio State was just a little more physical, junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett said, “They were a great defense. We’ve just got to take care of the ball better. Myself, pointing out myself, I made a lot of mistakes. There were some great plays. They were making great plays all day, trying to strip the ball out and stuff like that.”

It’s the Pits: Sophomore receiver Michael Pittman said, “I feel like our defense was making a lot of plays. I felt like they played great. Hats off to them, and we didn’t really hold up our side of the game. We had a lot of mistakes, and a lot of turnovers that they executed on.”

A linebacker’s view: Asked about the Ohio State offensive line, All-Pac-12 linebacker Uchenna Nwosu said, “Their O-line is very good. Shout out to their O-line. They were very consistent in the run game, pass protection, everything. Their offensive line is very good.”

Philosophically speaking: Senior safety and team captain Chris Hawkins said, “It’s a team game. I don’t put blame on offense, defense, special teams or anything. It’s a team game. As a team, they were better than us today.”  

From the press box…

Celebrity sightings: On the field for warmup prior to kickoff were former Trojans Willie McGinest, Anthony Munoz, Michael Morgan, and Dion Bailey. Also on the Trojans sidelines was former Los Angeles Rams great Eric Dickerson.  

It’s official: The game officials were from the SEC.

Strike up the band: One of the highlights of the game were the performances of both the USC and Ohio State bands, which were both housed at the media hotel, the Omni Downtown Dallas. Watching “Script Ohio” with the tuba player dotting the “I” in Ohio was a thrill for any college football traditionalist.

The singer: Friday night’s national anthem was performed by jazz trumpeter Freddie Jones.

Scouting the talent: NFL reps listed in attendance included the Bears and Broncos.

The post-game show numbers…

Major depression: In Friday night’s Cotton Bowl against Ohio State, the Trojans scored 7 points. Prior to the Cotton Bowl, the Trojans were averaging 34.54 points per game.

Respectable numbers: Against Ohio State, the Trojans allowed 24 points. Prior to Ohio State, the Trojans defense was allowing 26.31 points per game.

A reasonable decrease: Against Ohio State, the Trojans had 413 yards in total offense. Prior to Ohio State, the Trojans were averaging 489.5 yards in total offense per game.

Tremendous effort: Against Ohio State, the Trojans defense allowed 277 total yards in offense. Prior to the Ohio State, the Trojans defense was allowing 404.8 total yards per game.

Power outage: Against Ohio State, the Trojans had 57 net yards rushing. Prior to Ohio State, the Trojans were averaging 194.9 rushing yards per game.

Modest increase: Against Ohio State, the Trojans allowed 163 net rushing yards. Prior to Ohio State, the Trojans defense was allowing 158.3 net yards rushing per game.

Healthy increase: Against Ohio State, the Trojans had 356 yards passing yards. Prior to Ohio State, the Trojans were averaging 294.62 passing yards per game.

Thirty plus increase: Against Ohio State, the Trojans allowed 277 passing yards. Prior to Ohio State, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 246.46 passing yards per game.

Flag waving: Against Ohio State, the Trojans had three penalties for 35 yards while Ohio State had three penalties for 30 yards. Prior to the Ohio State, the Trojans were averaging 72.31 penalized yards per game while opponents of the Trojans were averaging 58.00 penalty yards per game.

The last word: So, the curtain comes down on the 2017 season and winning the Pac-12 certainly accomplished one of the Trojans’ major goals. Now comes the next step and that’s the obvious selection into the 2018 College Football Playoff post-season tournament, but the Trojans proved against Ohio State they are still a work in progress. If Sam Darnold returns, the Trojans have a shot at the CFP. Without Darnold, well, let’s just enjoy the conference title a little bit longer before heading into spring practice.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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