ARLINGTON, Texas -- There was disappointment at stages of USC's season.
After national championship buzz swirled around the program during the summer months, the Trojans were hobbled by uneven play early in the season and fell out of serious playoff contention by Halloween. Some observers noted a slew of injuries. Others pointed to the few signs of progress and little incremental improvement.But the second half of the season commenced a turnaround by the Trojans, who won their final five games en route to a Pac-12 championship, their first conference crown in almost a decade and a fulfilling finish.
"I've seen people talking about this as one of the worst seasons, it doesn't feel like we've done this, done that, but we did," safety Chris Hawkins said.
Their final tilt, Friday night against Big Ten champion Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, marking a traditional Pac-12-Big Ten matchup, might ultimately serve as another measuring stick.
"It's our Super Bowl," Trojans coach Clay Helton said.
Though schedules have been expanded throughout major college football, a victory Friday would give USC 12 wins in a season for only the seventh time in school history. It would also come against fifth-ranked Ohio State, as successful as any program in the nation this decade and an annual playoff contender.
Despite prior accomplishments, a loss would leave them with a sour taste and some feeling of disappointment.
"There's always more to prove," tight end Tyler Petite said. "There's always someone that's going to say, 'Oh, the Pac-12 was soft this year, you guys didn't win by enough, whatever."
The Buckeyes, who narrowly missed the College Football Playoff, are the highest ranked team the eighth-ranked Trojans have faced this season, a clear-cut barometer.
It is a situation that parallels last season, when USC met playoff-snubbed Penn State in the Rose Bowl and upended the Big Ten champions in the final minutes.
The Trojans used the game as a springboard, finishing at No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll, the highest-ever finish for a three-loss team, and Helton said the "momentum" from the win propelled them into the offseason.
It gave their season a more enduring memory, as could another New Year's Six bowl win.
"At end of the day, for our team," Petite said, "we want to win this game to show everybody that we're the real deal."
WHEN USC HAS THE BALL
Sam Darnold, the redshirt sophomore quarterback, could be playing in his final game for the Trojans. Darnold said he has not reached a decision about his future, but he is eligible to enter the NFL Draft.
Darnold delivered a signature performance in last season's Rose Bowl win, and he has since established a reputation for giving some of his best efforts in USC's biggest games. His passer rating against ranked teams was fourth in the nation this season.
"Every time that Sam's had that opportunity, when it's been the bright lights on the brightest stage, he's accomplished it," Helton said.
Darnold's best game this season was in a big moment, against Stanford in the Pac-12 Conference title game, when he threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. His 13.5 yards per pass attempt was a career-best.
"I see a streaky player, and I say that with a lot of respect," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "Once he gets on, that's the job of the defense: not to let him get on."
After a tough September stretch that saw him throw eight interceptions in five games, Darnold has hit his stride, posting a 17-to-4 interception ratio, boosted by the development of underclassman receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns.
"He doesn't panic often, and he's always looking downfield," Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa said.
Expect an attempt to pressure Darnold, led by Bosa, the younger brother of Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa who leads the Buckeyes with seven sacks, followed by defensive tackle Tyquan Lewis, who has six sacks, part of a defensive line that rotates as if it was a hockey line.
"If you give him time, with the receivers they have, you won't stop him," Meyer said.
To ease the burden off Darnold, the Trojans lean on running back Ronald Jones, who rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 30 carries in the Pac-12 title game.
WHEN OHIO STATE HAS THE BALL
The presence of J.T. Barrett might make things tough on USC's defense, which has had trouble with dual-threat quarterbacks this season, including Arizona's Khalil Tate and Notre Dame's Brandon Wimbush.
Along with throwing for 2,939 yards, Barrett also ran for 732 yards.
"That's pretty darn special," Helton said.
But the senior signal caller is also one of the most experienced players the Trojans have faced, able to alter play calls at the line of scrimmage.
"When they call his number, I've seen defenses try to stop that, and he'll audible to another player," said Hawkins, the Trojans' senior safety. "He's been here a long time. He knows exactly what he's doing."
USC players pointed to a need to prevent Barrett from running past the edge of their defensive line.
"Once he breaks the pocket, you know, then you start to get worried a little bit," Hawkins said.
The Buckeyes most often rely on their ground game, using running plays 57 percent of the time this season, led by the rest of their backfield. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said the Buckeyes mirror a previous opponent, Texas, coached by former Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom
Best "Fridays" in Football from the Cotton Bowl!!! pic.twitter.com/uKJJN9ObSz— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) December 28, 2017
Ohio State freshman running back J.K. Dobbins has rushed for 1,364 yards and seven touchdowns, while Mike Weber added 608 yards with 10 touchdowns.
The Trojans can bring pressure, compiling 43 sacks this season, second most in the nation, but also have allowed plenty of yards and big plays. They ranked 77th in total defense, allowing 405 yards per game.
Their secondary might be without cornerback Jack Jones, who is considered a game-time decision because of an ankle injury suffered in the Pac-12 title game.
Jones has allowed his share of touchdowns, but also intercepted a team-high four passes, among 24 turnovers the defense has forced.
This article is written by Joey Kaufman from Orange County Register and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.