ARLINGTON, Texas — Ohio State and its record-setting senior class can forever rest their argument that these Buckeyes deserved a crack at the http://www.espn.com/college-football/playoff/.
They offered a solid closing statement on Friday night, stuffing USC in a 24-7 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic victory at AT&T Stadium.
The win smelled like a rose and looked like a rose. Ahead of this game in north Texas, though, the Buckeyes were reminded regularly that the matchup of Big Ten champion versus Pac-12 champion was displaced from Pasadena by the playoff.
It was a playoff that Ohio State missed by one spot, penalized for a September loss to Oklahoma and a more costly, 31-point defeat at Iowa. After that Week 10 setback, Urban Meyer’s team won its next four — punctuated by a Big Ten title game win over previously unbeaten Wisconsin — by an average margin of 25 points.
The win Friday night capped a spectacular closing stretch that left the fifth-ranked Buckeyes at 12-2, with 12 wins or more for the fifth time in six years under Meyer.
And they secured the program a first victory over USC in eight tries dating to 1975.
Despite its lapses, this team earned a spot among Meyer’s best in Columbus, powered by a group of seniors that finished 49-6 — the most wins by any four-year class in Ohio State history.
Senior J.T. Barrett piloted the journey and contributed a pair of touchdown runs against No. 8 USC, playing for the first time as a college quarterback in his home state.
It meant so much to Barrett, who was sidelined by injury for the playoff championship won here by Ohio State three years ago.
It meant a lot, too, to USC QB Sam Darnold, who faces a decision ahead of the Jan. 15 deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft. The 6-foot-4 junior struggled against Ohio State’s ferocious defensive front.
Before an intensely interested audience that included Denver Broncos GM John Elway, Darnold rarely looked comfortable. He committed three turnovers, notably a second-quarter pick-six returned 23 yards by safety Damon Webb. Darnold also lost a fumble before halftime that led to a two-play, 59-yard Ohio State TD drive.
Another USC turnover, on the third play from scrimmage as cornerback Kendall Sheffield stripped receiver Deontay Burnett, allowed the Buckeyes to take a seven-point lead less than three minutes after the opening kickoff.
Darnold finished 26-of-45 passing for 356 yards. He was sacked eight times. Barrett, meanwhile, threw for 114 yards and rushed for 66 while breaking Drew Brees’ Big Ten career record for total-offense yardage.
The Big Ten improved to 5-0 in bowl season, while the Pac-12 dropped to 1-6 with another matchup set for Saturday in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl as No. 9 Penn State faces No. 11 Washington.
Aside from the quarterbacks and league bragging rights, Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward made headlines by announcing his intention minutes before kickoff to declare for the draft and skip the game on Friday. Ward is rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay as the top draft-eligible player at his position.