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USC Football: Positional Grades vs #5 Ohio State

Evaluating a frustrating offensive performance alongside a heroic defensive effort in USC’s 24-7 Cotton Bowl loss

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports


A word I’ll use often to describe this game. Frustrating.

Don’t let the scoreboard fool you, 24-7 is not nearly as bad as it seems. This Trojan team deserves some credit for the effort put in last night. USC did have more than 135 total yards than the Buckeyes on the night, almost ten minutes more in time of possession, and ten more first downs. But, the biggest stat of the night (and every other night) rained supreme: the scoreboard.

Oh, and don’t forget turnovers.

Brace yourself, this is long. With that being said, let’s check out how our beloved Trojans did on their final report card of the 2017 campaign.

Quarterback: C

Oh Sam Darnold, what a ride it’s been. While I expect Darnold to declare for the draft sometime in the next week, I’m holding onto little hope he doesn’t. It’s clear Darnold certainly wishes he could have ended this season on a better note, but it seems fitting it would be like this. Sam Darnold: running for his life all night, making several great plays, followed by a couple frustrating ones, capped off with ball security issues, and a Trojan giving all his heart on the field. To me that sums up Darnold this season.

He wasn’t perfect, we all know that. Ball security is a major issue. He cannot, CANNOT, lose the ball on a regular basis like that. Every quarterback does it from time to time, but too often Darnold is sloppy with the ball while the pocket is collapsing. Those two fumbles tonight were absolute killers for SC, both in Buckeye territory killing potential scoring drives. The pick-six is complicated. It’s not like Darnold is making an inaccurate throw or throwing into tight coverage, he’s just trusting his receiver. It’s a throw across the hash into the middle of the field that has the potential to go horribly wrong (which it did). But Deontay Burnett is Darnold’s guy, and they’ve built enough trust to deliver that throw and Burnett will be there to get it, at least knock the ball away from any defensive back. I think Burnett let him down. Burnett was a bit lackadaisical, didn’t come back to the ball, and before he even knew it the OSU corner was off to the house. Was also an incredible read and jump on the ball from the Buckeyes DB, just unreal.

I have to give him credit for the heart tonight. My old coach used to always recognize brave individual performances as “putting their heart out on the table”. Darnold put his heart out on the table for this team tonight. He took an absolute beating from a very physical OSU defensive front, and still managed to throw for 350 yards and keep this Trojan team battling. He also threw some dimes tonight, as he always does. His performance left a lot to be desired, and he’ll be the first to admit that, but his passion and heart showed last night.

Runningbacks: B-

I mean, you can’t really run when there’s nowhere to run. That seems pretty obvious, right? If you take away Darnold’s sack numbers the rushing attack looks like this, 25 carries for 75 yards (3 ypc) and a touchdown. Credit to Ronald Jones II, he was given practically nothing all night, but when he got the slightest sliver of space he managed to gain meaningful yards. That was something I highlighted in a podcast earlier this week with the guys on OSU’s website, Jones had to find those little crevices and squeak out tough yards against a tough Buckeye front seven. 19 rushes for 64 yards isn’t a sexy statline by any means, but given what he had to work with, Jones shouldn’t be hanging his head. Props to Aca’Cedric Ware for standing up for Darnold in the final two minutes of the game. The late hit on Darnold was uncalled for, and Ware had his QBs back in a heartbeat. That’s what a good teammate does. I wish I could raise the grade, but they just weren’t given enough chances to make a significant enough impact.

Offensive Line: F

That was a trash heap. A dumpster fire. A complete mess. They bummed it. Any of these sayings would suffice in describing the Trojans offensive line play tonight. They just straight up got bullied off the ball. There’s no other way to put it. It wasn’t even because the Buckeyes hid their blitzes well and pulled off impressive stunts and finesses moves (which they did). They didn’t even need to do that, they straight up manhandled the SC line one on one. They were sacking Darnold off a three man rush. Yes, three pass rushers were able to beat five offensive lineman, within three seconds of the ball being snapped.

Yes, Ohio State has an extremely impressive defensive front, but the Trojans line made them look like absolute gods last night. Eight sacks!? 14 tackles for loss!? That just can’t happen, ever. You think Darnold got in enough cardio last night? He was running for his life within two seconds of every drop back. It got so bad, Ronald Jones was probably thanking them on plays where he didn’t get hit behind the line of scrimmage. I’ve never been this critical of this group, as I think they’ve come along very nicely as the seasons progressed. But this was a terrible way to end the 2017 campaign, something these young lineman need to shake off immediately and grow from in 2018.

Wide Receivers/ Tight Ends: C+

This grade is tricky, because the receivers really did have some special moments tonight. Burnett, Tyler Vaughns, and Michael Pittman all had great numbers at the end of the night, combining for 327 yards on just 21 catches. Both Vaughns and Pittman showed great footwork on the sidelines making sliding catches, along with a couple impressive arm-extending grabs that went for 20 yards plus. Their length and athleticism was a problem for the Buckeyes secondary all night, burning them on multiple occasions. Both players really grew into their own this season, and Trojan fans should definitely be excited to watch this duo really flourish in 2018.

But, the receivers also had some terrible moments tonight. Well not receivers, receiver*. Deontay Burnett. Credit to Burnett for keeping his head up tonight, after early mistakes Burnett finished with 12 catches for 139 yards (11.6 ypc). He worked hard all night and came up big on drives when the Trojans needed him. But, his mistakes in the beginning proved to be too costly. His fumble resulted in a short field for the Buckeyes leading to the first score of the game. Two drives later he couldn’t hold onto a pivotal third down ball resulting in a punt. Finally, his lackadaisical route and effort to get to the ball on the pick six resulted in another seven points for OSU. I don’t want anyone to think I’m solely blaming him though, if I had to put a ratio to it I’d say 50/50 on blame for Darnold and Burnett. These mistakes proved to be too costly in the end.

Defensive Line: B

Credit to the Trojans defensive front, they held their own last night. Going up against three All-Americans on the OSU offensive line, the Trojans battled and really locked in the second half. They completely shut down the run game between the tackles as the game went along. Rasheem Green made his presence felt the entire night, coming up with a big sack and a fourth down stop. Josh Fatu had a decent night up the middle, finishing with four tackles on the night. Ohio State did rush for over 160 yards, but majority of that came from JT Barrett, which often times came off scrambles. They did a good job of holding JK Dobbins to only 39 yards off his 13 carries on the night. Their pass rush was only decent and at times they should have gotten to Barrett but failed to in the end. But all in all, it was a solid performance from the SC defensive front against the best line they’ve faced all year.

Linebackers: B+

Man, I am gonna miss Cameron Smith and Uchenna Nwosu. They really balled out the entire year and each had good games to close their Trojan careers (should Smith enter the NFL Draft). Smith finished with double digit tackles for the fourth time this season, and Nwosu got two of the Trojans three sacks on the night. John Houston Jr had a solid night, finishing with eight tackles. He is a guy to watch next year, as he’ll become one of the primary starting linebackers. They were solid between the tackles when it came to run support, the only place they really got hit hard was on the edge. OSU threw in a few well designed jet sweeps and tosses that allowed their speedy receivers to get the edge early on. But credit to the Trojans, they adjusted and their pursuit became better as they shut down outside runs as the game went along.

Secondary: A-

I loved the secondary play last night. Not only the performance but the passion and energy they brought. I saw Chris Hawkins and Ajene Harris getting fired up multiple times after making big plays throughout the second half. They seemed to really spark this Trojan defense. It was great to see these guys have a good game.

JT Barrett is no gun slinger, but he is still a great quarterback. The Trojans secondary held him to only 114 yards through the air, with a low 6.7 yards on average. Although Ohio State didn’t throw often in the second half, it’s still an impressive feat. They also were very physical in run support in the second half. Something we hadn’t seen all year from these defensive backs, so it was refreshing to see. Also Harris’ hit on the Buckeye offensive lineman was perfect. The play wasn’t over and he caught the big guy off guard. I love it when smaller guys play with passion like that. You don’t wanna get hit, stop standing around while the plays going on.

Special Teams: D-

The little things matter. Special teams was another killer for the Trojans tonight. And no, the muffed punt won’t be included. Don’t tell me the ST unit did anything special (see what I did there) to cause that to happen, I mean c’mon a defender wasn’t even within five yards of the returner when he was trying to catch it. Sure, he got turned around a couple yards but that happens every game, guys just usually don’t screw up like that. Pure luck.

Four of the Trojans first six drives started inside their own 20 yard line due to poor kickoff returns. That can’t happen. You can’t set this Trojan offense back before it even takes the field against a dominant defense. The punting was also weak, Reid Budrovich had multiple opportunities to really pin the Buckeyes offense deep in their own territory but couldn’t do it. He wasn’t awful, but it was little things like that that made a difference. OSU’s kicker outkicked Budrovich by over 10 yards on average tonight. Extremely frustrating when teams can’t do the little things to win football games. Oh, and freshman kicker Chase McGrath missed a HUGE field goal. The difference between a three and two score deficit is not only vital time wise, but psychologically as well. USC was done after that miss, two score deficit with nine minutes left is doable, three score deficit is nearly impossible. The Trojans hope diminished after the ball hit the upright.

Coaching: C-

USC did not look ready to go early on, that’s on coaching. As a result, Ohio State jumped on top early and built a substantial lead before the Trojans even knew it. I don’t know how you can come out so flat in a huge bowl game like the Cotton Bowl. I thought the offensive game plan was weak. Obviously it was altered into a purely intermediate to deep passing offense in the second half due to how much USC was trailing, so some of it is tough to judge.

But in the first half you rarely saw any swing passes, jet sweeps, screens or tempo, all things that were expected to be vital against this Ohio State defense. I think I saw one swing pass to Stephen Carr that lost a yard and a screen to Tyler Petite of all people that got two yards. Just because those calls don’t work doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful. It’s about stretching the defense, being unpredictable and making a defense really think and cover the entire field. That could have, and should have, really made an impact last night. Defensive play calling was good, it’s clear the 24 points aren’t on them, realistically just 10. SC did shut down Ohio State in the second half, but OSU seemed to be running a very vanilla offense with such a substantial lead. It was clear they trusted their defense and didn’t want to give this energized Trojans defense any chance to flip the game.

A frustrating game to say the least.