For all the gaudy numbers Sam Darnold has put up in his two seasons as USC quarterback, there’s one statistic he would just as soon forget.
Darnold threw 13 interceptions and fumbled nine times this season, handing the ball over 22 times — that’s more turnovers than 95 teams committed. Three of those turnovers came Friday, with two leading to first-half touchdowns that started No. 5 Ohio State on its way to a 24-7 Cotton Bowl win played before a crowd of 67,510 at AT&T Stadium.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “Any time you turn the ball over three times you’re putting a hurt on your defense. It led to points early.”
“Whenever you turn the ball over that much, it’s hard to win,” said Darnold, who was sacked eight times.
In fact, the game was only four plays old when the Trojans coughed the ball up the first time, with Ohio State cornerback Kendall Shef-field stripping it from receiver Deontay Burnett at the USC 39.
Damon Webb recovered and five plays later quarterback J.T. Barrett scored from the one to give Ohio State (12-2) the lead for good.
Then one play after the Buckeyes’ Sean Nuernberger opened the second quarter with a 26-yard field goal, Darnold threw a strike to a wide-open Webb — who, unfortunately for Darnold, was still playing for Ohio State. Webb brought the ball back 23 yards for Ohio State’s first return touchdown of the season, giving the Buckeyes 10 points in 13 seconds.
USC wouldn’t match that total all night. For the Trojans the game, and the season, was as good as over.
“I made a bad read. I shouldn’t have thrown it, obviously,” Darnold said. “It was a bad play on my part.”
With Darnold throwing for 356 yards — becoming the first USC quarterback to go over 4,000 yards in a season — and Burnett setting a Cotton Bowl record with 12 receptions for 139 yards, the Trojans actually outgained Ohio State 413-277, picked up 10 more first downs and dominated time of possession. But the turnovers and USC’s struggles on third down — where the Trojans were six for 19 — erased that advantage.
“Their quarterback is as good as advertised, but our defensive line really dominated the game,” Meyer said of a unit that harried Darnold all night.
“They’re obviously a really good defensive line,” Darnold said. “They’re probably the best I’ve played.”
USC had the ball in Ohio State territory eight times but two of those drives ended on fumbles, three on punts, another on a missed field goal and the last on an incomplete pass toward the end zone in the final seconds. As a result the Trojans managed their lowest output since last year’s season opener, when it lost to Alabama 52-6.
That game was also played at AT&T Stadium, a place the Trojans might want to avoid in the future.
“We had the ball three times in the red zone. And we didn’t put up points,” Darnold said. “Those are tough. It’s going to be hard to win ballgames like that.”
A Darnold fumble later in the second period ended USC’s most promising drive of the first half at the Ohio State 23 and set up the Buckeyes’ final touchdown, with Barrett passing for 16 yards and running for 28 more, sandwiched around a facemask penalty.
Barrett’s weaving touchdown run, his longest of the season, put Ohio State up 24-0.
The Buckeyes wouldn’t score again — but then they didn’t need to. As good as USC’s defense was, it wasn’t good enough to overcome the offensive mistakes.
“Everyone did their job, from the defensive line to the safeties,” linebacker John Houston Jr. said. “Everyone did what they had to do.”
A turnover also led to USC’s only score, with Marvell Tell recovering a muffed punt at the Ohio State 15 with less than three minutes left in the first half. Three plays later Ronald Jones II ran it in from the one.
Aside from that, the most spirit the Trojans showed all night came after Darnold was shoved out of bounds following a scramble with two minutes to play.
The push, which earned a personal foul for Ohio State’s Malik Harrison, also led to a wild sideline scuffle, two personal fouls on USC and the expulsion of Trojans safety Jamel Cook.
Four plays later, Dar-nold’s final pass of the night fluttered to the turf untouched. Whether that will prove to be his final pass as a college quarterback will be determined in the next two weeks.
For Ohio State, meanwhile, the victory gave it 12 wins for the fifth time in six seasons under Meyer, who is 73-8 since 2012.
USC’s 11-3 record is its best since 2008. But the loss dropped the Pac-12 to 1-7 in bowls this month, with only Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, matching Washington and Penn State, left on the schedule.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11