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2017 Cotton Bowl Classic: Keys to a USC victory over Ohio State

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Here are some keys to the game in Dallas.

Pac 12 Championship - Stanford v USC Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s Game week! The 2017 Cotton Bowl Classic between the USC Trojans and Ohio State Buckeyes is only a few days away. This game has many calling it, one of the most anticipated bowl games this season. The Buckeyes are currently a 7.5 favorite over USC. What are some keys to a Trojans victory? Let’s break them down.

USC must slow down the Ohio State run game:

Ohio State has a rushing attack that ranks 8th nationally in yards per rush (5.9/carry) 12th in yards per game (250.2/game). The Buckeyes will use freshman running back J.K. Dobbins and sophomore Mike Weber to wear down the USC offense. Dobbins and Weber combine for an average of just over 22 carries per game for about 160 yards. Dobbins was the more explosive of the duo with 38 runs going for ten or more yards. Furthermore of his 181 attempts almost one third of them were for a first down

The numbers for Dobbins and Weber are solid but don’t forget about quarterback J.T. Barrett who can and will rush on some design runs and read option plays. Excluding sacks Barrett had 133 rushes for 820 yards and 10 touchdowns (this is in addition to his 2,939 passing yards and 35 passing touchdowns). Barrett has the second most rushing attempts and rushing yards on the team. Barrett was perhaps most dangerous as a runner on third downs converting for a first down 21 times this season. Out of all of Ohio State’s attempts on third down, Barrett also ran the ball on roughly 23% of all of Ohio State’s third down attempts this season (Dobbins 9%, Weber 8%, passing 51%).

Furthermore, OSU only passed the ball on 44.41% of plays (87th most often out of 130). When OSU defeated teams with defenses rated higher than USC in defensive S&P+ the percentage of passing plays dropped. In both of the Buckeyes’ loses this year 50% or more of their plays were passes. In wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin only about one third of their plays were passes. Penn State was the lone exception but much of this can be attributed to being down big in the 4th quarter forcing more passes and the Buckeyes completely taking away the running game. Ultimately when Ohio State played better defenses the Buckeyes either ran the ball far more often or they lost.

In other words forcing more passes by taking away the run improves the USC chances of victory. The USC defense will have to find a way to slow down the rushing attack and force the Buckeyes offense to be one dimensional or at least get them a off schedule more frequently. The Buckeyes needed four or more yards on 63% of their third down attempts. OSU only converted about one third of those attempts. The Buckeyes converted almost 69% of third downs when needing fewer than 4 yards.

During the Pac-12 Championship Game, USC was able to bottle up Bryce Love, however they now have to deal with two talented running backs and a quarterback that can run. Ohio State averages 243.4 rushing yards per game and USC has had their ups and downs stopping the run this season so slowing the Buckeyes down will be a challenge.

The USC Trojans defense must limit explosive plays:

This is a big thing for the Trojans defense given that Urban Meyer’s offense can indeed connect on explosive plays. USC had a tendency of giving up the big play this season. USC has given up 71 plays of 20 yards or more from the line of scrimmage this season. The Buckeyes are one of the best teams at making plays 20 yards or more from the line of scrimmage. USC defense will have to get pressure on J.T. Barrett and slow down the rushing attack to disrupt the Ohio State offense. While it’s easier said than done, USC will need that in order to give them a shot at winning this game.

The Trojans must pressure and contain J.T. Barrett:

As mentioned previously, the USC pass rush MUST pressure J.T. Barrett. USC is ranked first in the nation in sacks with 43 and has one of the more underrated defensive players in senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. The last three games USC’s pass rush has struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, but in the Pac-12 Championship game they did manage to get 2 sacks. Trojans defensive linemen Rasheem Green and Christian Rector must help to create pressure and force Barrett to be uncomfortable while not letting him run. The Buckeyes offensive line has only allowed 19 sacks and Barrett’s mobility will make it hard for USC to really bring him down.

Big Ten Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin
USC pass rush must disrupt J.T. Barrett in the backfield. (Photo via Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

USC has to protect the ball:

USC must protect the ball against an Ohio State defense that has forced 20 turnovers this season. Most turnovers have come from Sam Darnold not protecting the ball by fumbling and throwing questionable passes that lead to interceptions. USC offense cannot afford to give the ball back to Ohio State and let their offense capitalize off the turnover. The Trojans must protect the ball at all costs. The Buckeyes offense is already good enough, the Trojans cannot afford to gift them points off of turnovers.

USC running back Ronald Jones II has to get going:

Ronald Jones II has been very effective for the Trojans this season and a huge factor for the USC offense. He will have to be a huge factor against Ohio State. Jones averages 6.1 yards a carry which puts the Trojans in 2nd and short situations, He also is very hard to bring down as most USC fans and opponents have seen this season. USC must go to him early and often and the USC offensive line must create some push to get Jones going. Jones will also open things up not only for the passing game, but other running backs like Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepaei.

UCLA v USC
Ronald Jones II will be a key player for the USC offense. (Photo via Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Trojans must cut down the penalties:

This has been USC’s biggest issue for most of the season. Only seven teams in the country (not just Power 5 teams) have a higher average penalties per game. This has led to the USC offense stalling on drives or the USC defense allowing drives to continue where they could’ve gotten off the field. The Trojans are one of the worst teams in terms of giving free first downs because of penalties. The Buckeyes are actually not much better in this area so cutting down the number of penalties could give USC a big advantage in the Cotton Bowl.

The Trojans have to Play All 4 Quarters:

Another problem that has haunted the Trojans, not playing all 4 quarters. USC has had issues putting teams away this season and it has almost cost them games. USC has been outscored in the second half in six of their 13 games this season. If USC gets off to a fast start against Ohio State in the first half then they can’t afford to take their foot off the gas.

USC also cannot afford to start slow for two reasons, the first being that things could really get ugly, like the Notre Dame game many would like to forget and the second is that OSU wins the second half. The Buckeyes have only been outscored 4 times in the second half. The Buckeyes were outscored in the final thirty minutes in both of losses (OSU was tied at the half with Oklahoma and down 11 to Iowa). OSU almost blew an 11-point halftime lead in the Big Ten Conference Championship game when Wisconsin outscored the Buckeyes in the final 30. The fourth was in garbage time again UNLV.

Point being, USC must be consistent and play all 4 quarters of football to win the Cotton Bowl.