ARLINGTON, Texas -- If the Cotton Bowl was the final collegiate game for USC quarterback Sam Darnold, his uneven performance won't make his pro projection any easier for NFL evaluators.
At times, the redshirt sophomore was outstanding against Ohio State on Friday night, seeing the field well and delivering with touch and timing. But just like most of this season, too many drives ended in turnovers, including a pick-six and two fumbles -- all examples of being too careless with the football.
Darnold finished 26-for-45 for 356 yards and zero touchdowns in the 24-7 loss. He had three turnovers with one interception and two fumbles.
Full context: The USC offense, not just Darnold, was apathetic for much of the night. The protections were spotty, the receivers struggled to separate and the coaching didn't help Darnold make the appropriate adjustments.
The Buckeyes' defensive line is the best front the Trojans have faced this season (and maybe the best unit Darnold has faced in his career), and with three weeks to prepare for USC's insipid offense, Ohio State lived in the Trojans' backfield most of the night.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer credited the pass rush as the reason for the win.
"That defensive line took a quarterback, who we have tremendous respect for, he didn't set his feet all night," Meyer said. "That's the way we won that game."
However, that doesn't change the fact that the quarterback needs to take better care of the football. The quarterback Hippocratic Oath (keep team from harm) has evaded Darnold much of the season, finishing the season 2017 with 22 turnovers.
If he elects to leave school early, Darnold will be in the conversation to be the first quarterback drafted because of his arm, intelligence and intangibles. Returning to USC and furthering his development in college next season might be what is best for him long-term, but an almost certain top pick will be tough to pass up for Darnold, making his NFL decision a compelling one.
With the quarterback-needy Cleveland Browns set to pick No. 1 in the 2018 NFL Draft, the quarterback conversation will hold the NFL hostage the next four months, which will be especially true if Darnold declares.
Other Cotton Bowl draft notes
--Ohio State's defensive line, who I'm convinced would win a beauty contest, was the key to the Buckeyes' victory, finishing with 13 tackles for loss and eight sacks of Darnold.
Walking around on the field pregame, the group of defensive ends looks like a NFL unit. Nick Bosa, Jalyn Holmes, Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis are all future starters at the next level -- Holmes, Hubbard and Lewis next season and Bosa in 2019 when the true sophomore is eligible.
Hubbard, in particular, had a strong night against USC's offensive line, displaying the football intelligence and athleticism that translates well to the NFL game. He isn't strictly an edge screamer who looks to win with speed, Hubbard has the short-area quickness to adjust his body and movements mid-rush, finding the ball. Darnold will have nightmares of No. 6 tonight.
--Ohio State senior QB JT Barrett doesn't have the same skill-set as Darnold to be a first-round pick, but his unwavering leadership and productive resume won't go unnoticed by NFL teams.
In his final game in the scarlet and grey, Barrett was at his best, maneuvering through the chaos and making efficient decisions. His final numbers look pedestrian (11 completions, 114 passing yards), but his control of the offense, especially with his legs (4.1 average, two rushing scores), is often the difference.
As a college player, Barrett will be remembered as one of the best in Buckeyes and Big Ten history, setting numerous single-season and career records. In the third quarter of the Cotton Bowl, he passed Drew Brees to become the Big Ten's all-time leader in total yardage.
As a NFL prospect, he doesn't have the consistency as a passer to warrant a high draft pick, but intangibles are an important aspect of the position and pro coaches will appreciate his mental make-up. Bottom line: I wasn't blown away watching Barrett -- on tape or in person Friday night -- but there have been much worse quarterbacks drafted and he will have a chance to fight for a roster spot next summer.
--Easily the best player on USC's defense, senior pass rusher Uchenna Nwosu consistently disrupted the Ohio State backfield with his versatile rush attack. On some snaps, he was a traditional edge presence, dipping his shoulder and trying to win the arc. But his most productive plays came as a stand-up rusher over the interior of the offensive line where he used patience, timing and burst to infiltrate the pocket.
Nwosu doesn't have elite physical traits that scouts seek in a NFL pass rusher, but he is expected to be a day-two draft selection because he simply gets results. His motor, instincts and toughness help mask his average athleticism in the NFL.
--Speed is easy to spot on the football field. But it can be easier to gain an appreciation for that speed in person. And that was the case for me at AT&T Stadium Friday night for USC RB Ronald Jones.
A native of North Texas, Jones returned home for what was expected to be his final collegiate game before bolting for the NFL. And for the most part, Ohio State bottled him up, limiting the talented junior to only 64 yards on 19 carries (3.4 average).
However, when Jones had room to stretch out his legs, his acceleration allowed him to reach his top speed instantly to slash through holes before defenders could adjust. Combine that speed with his run instincts, patience and start/stop elusiveness, and Jones helps viewers rediscover Jamaal Charles flashbacks stored in the back of their mind.
Jones' speed with the ball in his hands is one of the reasons why he is expected to be one of the top five running backs drafted in April.
--Arguably the best NFL prospect on either roster, Ohio State junior cornerback Denzel Ward made the game-time decision to sit out and avoid injury as he prepares for the 2018 NFL Draft. While disappointing, the decision doesn't come as a surprise because the Ohio State corner is already viewed as a first-round player and one of the best draft-eligible defensive backs.
While undersized, and those lack of inches show at times, Ward has twitchy athleticism with the budding instincts and required toughness to be trusted on an island vs. NFL receivers, either on the outside or in the slot.