Cotton Bowl berth means a return trip to AT&T Stadium for USC

Alabama's Humphrey Marlon intercepts a pass in front of USC receivers Darreus Rogers, left, and Taylor McNamara in the second quarter on Sept. 3, 2016.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Cotton Bowl means something more to USC than just a big-time postseason game.

It also means a return to AT&T Stadium.

Coach Clay Helton remembers all too well: “Last time we were there, we got our butts beat.”

That would be the 2016 season opener against top-ranked Alabama, when the No. 20 Trojans were embarrassed 52-6 on national television. Helton might have been hoping the ugly memory would add some adrenaline to the team’s preparation.


The coach reminded his players they would, once again, face a marquee program at the Arlington, Texas, venue. They seemed appropriately energized during a fast, loud practice on Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m looking forward to playing this team,” linebacker Cameron Smith said of Cotton Bowl opponent Ohio State. “It’s going to be a blast.”

USC will finish this week with two practices, both closed to the media, then hold two more at the start of next week before taking several days off for Christmas vacation.

The Trojans depart for Texas on Dec. 23.

“The mental focus we have to bring to the table over this week of preparation — their energy needs to be up, their competitiveness to be up, but also their focus on the game plan,” Helton said. “Because what’s going to happen, we’re going to blink our eyes and we’re going to be in Dallas.”

Buckeye state

If anyone understands what kind of opponent USC will face on Dec. 29, it’s running backs coach Deland McCullough.

The Ohio native played high school and college ball in his home state. He also had a stint with the Cincinnati Bengals in the mid-1990s.

More recently, McCullough spent six years coaching at Big Ten rival Indiana.

He was on a recruiting trip two weeks ago, flying into Akron, when the USC-Ohio State matchup was announced. So he could not understand why so many people were staring at him as he walked through the airport terminal in his team gear.

“I’m like, ‘What’s the deal?’ ” he said. “I turn on my phone and all these texts are coming through and I say, ‘Oh, that’s what it is.’ ”

Not everybody considered him an enemy in the land of the Buckeyes. McCullough recalled that the clerk at the rental car counter wished the Trojans luck, saying: “I’m from Ohio but I’m a Michigan guy.”

On the mend

Linebacker Porter Gustin moved around practice minus the walking boot he previously wore to protect his injured toe.

“For him, he’s really pleased with where he is,” Helton said. “He does not feel any pain and it’s good to see that progression.”

Receiver Tyler Vaughns was kept out again as he recuperates from a Grade 1 AC sprain.

“He fell on his shoulder,” Helton said of the injury Vaughns suffered earlier this week. “We had to hold him back. … I would imagine in three or four days’ time he’ll be 100%.”

Quick hits

USC held its team banquet on Wednesday night, with quarterback Sam Darnold and linebacker Uchenna Nwosu sharing the most valuable player award. … Blind snapper Jake Olson, who played in two games, was voted most inspirational.

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