DALLAS – Ohio State had much to be proud of in its 12-win season and its 24-7 win over USC in the Cotton Bowl, but its offense on Friday night wasn’t necessarily one of those things.
But there are other ways to win football games than rolling up big offensive numbers. And the Buckeyes used two of those ways to beat a traditional rival — ways like playing defense and watching an opponent set fire to any chance it had to win the game.
Ohio State sacked possible NFL No. 1 overall draft choice Sam Darnold eight times and the only touchdown its defense allowed was set up by a fumble at its own 15-yard line.
USC had four turnovers – three fumbles and an interception – and its three first-half turnovers all led to OSU touchdowns as the Buckeyes built a 24-0 lead with 5:27 left in the first half.
No. 5 Ohio State (12-2) has won at least 12 games in five of the six seasons Urban Meyer has been its coach and has won 12 or more in seven seasons overall.
“Our defensive line won that game. And our secondary,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “That quarterback (Darnold), I have a lot of respect for him. But the best way to disrupt a quarterback is to get after him and we did.”
Defensive ends Sam Hubbard, with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses, and Nick Bosa, with 1.5 sacks, led the defensive pressure on Darnold.
Meyer said OSU’s defense was “dominating and relentless against an excellent quarterback.”
“Our defense was dominating. Our offense didn’t play very well,” he said.
The Buckeyes’ defense played without their No. 1 cornerback, Denzel Ward, who made a last-minute decision – or at least a last-minute announcement – that he would not play in the Cotton Bowl to avoid an injury that might hurt his NFL draft standing.
Ward, who is rated as a first-round draft choice, issued a statement before the game that said in part, “This was a very difficult decision that I ultimately had to make. But at the end of the day I feel this is the best decision for my family and me. I had countless discussions with my coaches about this decision well before the game.”
Ward’s father, Paul, a middle school principal in Bedford, Ohio, died last year of a heart attack at age 46.
USC (11-3) outgained Ohio State 413 yards to 277 yards but saw its chances crushed by the weight of its mistakes. OSU gained only 94 yards in the second half and had only four first downs in the final two quarters.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett rushed for 66 yards on 16 carries and scored both of OSU’s offensive touchdowns, one on a 1-yard run and the other on a 28-yard run. Wide receiver Parris Campbell was Ohio State’s second-leading rusher with 42 yards on three carries on three carries.
Darnold was 26 of 45 for 356 yards. Ronald Jones gained 64 yards on 19 carries and scored the Trojans’ on TD on a 1-yard run.
“Ohio State played an excellent game. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot in this game,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “It led to points and separation early in the game.
“In the first half we had turnovers and didn’t really get our offense going. In the second half, we got the ball down in the red zone (inside the 20-yard line) three times and didn’t get any points,” he said.
Darnold said, “When you turn the ball over that many times it’s hard to win games.”
All four touchdowns scored in the first half came after turnovers.
It started on the third offensive play of the game when USC’s Deontay Burnett fumbled after grabbing a 16-yard pass from Darnold and Damon Webb picked it up and returned it to the Trojans’ 19-yard line. Four plays later Barrett ran one yard for a 7-0 lead.
After Sean Nuernberger’s 26-yard field goal gave OSU a 10-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter, the Buckeyes benefitted from another USC turnover. And it didn’t have to wait long.
On the Trojans’ first offensive play after the field goal, Webb stepped in front of Burnett for an interception and went 23 yards for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead with 14:42 left in the first half.
Darnold’s second turnover of the first half set up Ohio State’s third touchdown.
Tyquan Lewis sacked the third-year junior and jarred the ball loose and Jerome Baker recovered it at the Buckeyes’ 41-yard line.
A 16-yard pass from Barrett to Mike Weber, with a 15-yard face mask penalty added on, plus a 28-yard touchdown run by Barrett made it 24-0.
USC got on the scoreboard with the help of an Ohio State mistake. After punt returner K.J. Hill fumbled and USC recovered the ball at the 15-yard line, tailback Ronald Jones scored on a 1-yard run to cut the lead to 24-7.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.