Well-Earned Win, Bittersweet Goodbye

By Jeff Rapp, December 30th, 2017

The postgame celebration wasn’t as joyous as the one in Indianapolis weeks earlier when the Buckeyes had secured the Big Ten championship and still harbored hope of making the College Football Playoff field of four.

No. 5 Ohio State took down No. 8 USC – finally – with a 24-7 win in the Cotton Bowl on Friday night, but it felt like there was less confetti and euphoria replaced by feelings of sentimentality.

After all, the Buckeyes’ postseason turned out to be bittersweet.

Sacking Trojan phenom Sam Darnold eight times, controlling the game and pitching a shutout in the second half was impressive, but as the final seconds ticked away, ending OSU’s season at 12-2 (and USC’s at 11-3), the reality of the exodus ahead was setting in as well.

Most notably, the Cotton Bowl marks the last game in scarlet and gray for record-setting quarterback J.T. Barrett, who ends his incredible career with a personal record of 38-6 as a starter and walked off the carpet at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as the Big Ten’s all-time leader in total offense.

It also marked the end for offensive lineman Billy Price, like Barrett, a clear team leader and one who now holds the record for most starts ever by any Ohio State football player with 55. That accomplishment may be even more noteworthy than Price shifting from guard to center and being named the Rimington Award winner – one year after good friend Pat Elflein did the same thing for the Buckeyes.

The college careers of many other familiar senior starters came to a halt as well – end Tyquan Lewis, tackle Tracy Sprinkle, linebacker Chris Worley and safety Damon Webb on defense along with tight end Marcus Baugh and left tackle Jamarco Jones on offense. Add in defensive lineman Jalyn Holmes, who doesn’t always start but is a major weapon along the line and projects to have a similar role as a pro.

And we learned on game night that corner Denzel Ward would not play in the Cotton Bowl and join the seniors in heading off to pursue the NFL. The next day, defensive end Sam Hubbard – who did play and turned in an outstanding outing vs. USC with 3.5 tackles-for-loss – followed suit and announced he had played in his last game for the Buckeyes.

Hubbard is a redshirt junior who just graduated days ago. Ward is a true junior who projects to go somewhere in the first round of the draft and may be the first cover corner selected.

Price and other team leaders had been adamant that no Buckeye would sit out the bowl game, citing the strong brotherhood on the team and commitment to each other. Those comments apparently had Ward conflicted on what to do, but he eventually opted to root his team on from the sideline.

Virtually as the Buckeyes were kicking off to begin the game, Ohio State’s athletic communications staff released the following statement:

“Ohio State junior cornerback Denzel Ward will not play in tonight’s game against USC and he will not return for his senior season with the Buckeyes in 2018. Ward wrestled with the decision to play (or not) throughout the bowl prep practices, leaving open his decision until game day. So he practiced, but he also helped the younger players in the program who were getting additional reps at cornerback this past month. The coaching staff was aware that Denzel’s decision to play or not play would not be made final until game day. He elected today to sit out.

“Ward, in his first season as a starter, was a consensus All-American for the Buckeyes in 2017. He led with team with 15 pass break-ups and 17 total passes defended (two interceptions and 15 PBUs). He also contributed 37 tackles, including 30 solo stops, and a crucial blocked punt that helped rally the Buckeyes to their 39-38 victory over No. 2 Penn State in October. He is from Macedonia, Ohio, and Nordonia High School.”

Hubbard was the second OSU player with remaining eligibility to leave it on the table. At 6-5, 265 pounds, versatile and athletic, he could be an excellent value pick as an outside linebacker for an NFL team that plays a 3-4 front.

Chances are a few more Buckeyes could join Ward and Hubbard as early entrants – a decision that needs to be made by Jan. 15.

Among those who could be mulling their future are defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones; linebacker Jerome Baker; running back Mike Weber; and receivers Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon, K.J. Hill and Terry McLaurin.

Campbell is considered likely to leave; Jones admits he is torn; the others haven’t tipped their hand in any way. However, defensive end Nick Bosa said recently he believed Jones would stay in school.

Last year, six Ohio State underclassmen declared for the draft. After the 2015 season, nine Buckeyes turned pro early.

Listed 6-1 and 208, Campbell showed the upside and downside of his game in the Cotton Bowl. He had several large gainers on jet sweeps and blocked well on the perimeter, but he also dropped a couple catchable passes.

Campbell told reporters after the Cotton Bowl win that he is weighing each side of his decision, including the idea of how good the OSU receivers could be next season if all of the pass catchers return.

“We’ve had those conversations,” he said. “If we all come back, we know we could be something special. But then again, we’ve got to think about the reality side of it.

“It’s a personal decision and I’m going to take the next week or two and think about it long and hard. It’s definitely not an easy decision. It’s been in the air for me for a while now.”

The seniors, meanwhile, ended their college experience with their 49th win and won on the same field where the Buckeyes won the 2015 national championship at the end of their freshman season.

In besting the Pac-12 champs, the Buckeyes beat USC for the first time in 44 years and ended a seven-game losing streak to the Men of Troy. They also all but guaranteed yet another top-five finish – another staple of the Barrett era.

USC entered play with one of the nation’s most potent offenses with Darnold behind center and a 1,400-yard rusher in Ronald Jones II, but the Buckeyes built a 24-0 lead while gobbling up three first-half turnovers.

Playing with a lead and able to tee off with their deadly pass rush, the Buckeyes cruised to the 17-point win before a crowd of 67,510, many of them, of course, scarlet-clad.

“It was a great win for Ohio State,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said afterward. “We’ll be a top-five team, Big Ten champs. We just had every senior say a few words. And I can’t get enough of those guys. They’re everything that you want in a young person. They lead the team. They live right off the field. And, obviously, they’re winners. Won a lot of games here, and they’re champions.

“I don’t use it very often, but I love this team. I love the leaders on this team. To send them out Cotton Bowl champions, that’s a heck of a year.”

The Buckeyes knocked off Michigan State and Michigan in November, held off Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, and completely overwhelmed the best team from the West in the season finale.

The key play was a pick-six interception for a touchdown by safety Webb moments after OSU had kicked a field goal to forge a 10-0 lead. The play seemed to stun Darnold and the Trojan offense, which never really managed to put a scare into the Buckeyes thereafter despite outgaining Ohio State on the night in total yardage, 413 to 277.

Webb, who was named the game’s defensive MVP, said someone had to emerge in the secondary with Ward out of action.

“My mindset was just the next man up,” he said. “I know we’ve got a lot of young guys that was ready to play. When we found out Denzel couldn’t play, we were just the next man up. We lose first-rounders every year, and that’s just the mindset we got here.”

Barrett needed just 175 total yards to surpass Drew Brees of Purdue for the Big Ten total offense record and he barely did so with 180 yards – 114 passing and 66 rushing. However, he had a pair of rushing TDs, allowing him to also surpass his own conference mark for touchdowns responsible for with 47 (35 passing, 12 rushing). He had 45 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2014.

Barrett finished with a total offense total of 12,697 yards. His 147 touchdowns (104 passing, 43 rushing) are also a Big Ten record, 41 more than Brees.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Barrett, a native of nearby Wichita Falls, Texas. “I mean, since I was little, I looked up to Drew Brees. To pass a record like that, I’m just very grateful to the people that were around me.”

Barret didn’t have his best game statistically, but he did enough to be named as the game’s offensive MVP.

Darnold, meanwhile was 26 of 45 passing for 356 yards. USC wideout Deontay Burnett grabbed 12 Darnold passes for 139 yards.

However, Darnold’s interception into the bread basket of Webb was crushing and he lost a pair of fumbles to end the season with more fumbles than any player in the FBS this season.

“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot in this game,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “You’re putting a hurt on your defense, and it led to points early in the game, and separation early in the game.”

Ohio State is now 24-25 all-time in bowl games including the vacated 2011 Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas. Meyer improved to 73-8 in six years at Ohio State, 177-31 overall. He’s 41-15 in his 16-yeard head coaching career against top-25 competition, including a 20-5 mark at Ohio State.

Meyer is 11-3 in his career in bowls and improved to 48-4 when he has more than a week to prepare for a game.

All of those gaudy marks figure to tested next year when the Buckeyes start over at quarterback and the defensive line, areas of strength throughout the Meyer era.