Arlington, Texas — Playoff-snubbed Ohio State got to raise another trophy in the building where the Buckeyes won a national championship.
While the streaming confetti this time was for a Cotton Bowl victory instead of a title celebration like three seasons ago, coach Urban Meyer still got a special feeling from the fifth-ranked Buckeyes' defensively dominant 24-7 win over No. 8 Southern California.
"The mindset was obvious. We wanted to go down as one of the great teams at Ohio State, Big Ten champions, obviously a top five finish," said Meyer, 73-8 in six seasons at Columbus. "This will go down as one of the best teams I've ever coached and one of the best groups of young people I've ever been around."
With Buckeyes All-America junior cornerback Denzel Ward sitting out after deciding to go into the NFL draft, fellow defensive back Damon Webb returned an interception for a touchdown after recovering a fumble to set up an early score.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 champions would usually play New Year's Day in Pasadena instead of deep in the heart of Texas, but the Rose Bowl is a College Football Playoff semifinal game this season.
Ohio State (12-2) instead quickly settled in at the NFL stadium where it won the first national championship in the four-team CFP format. The Buckeyes — with that bad loss at Iowa after an early setback to playoff team Oklahoma — were the first team left out this season.
USC (11-3), the Rose Bowl champion last season, lost for only the third time in its last 23 games. The Trojans had four turnovers that led to 21 Ohio State points in what could have been third-year sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold's final game.
"We kind of shot ourselves in the football 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."
Ward was on the sideline in his No. 12 jersey over street clothes while Webb had a fumble recovery on the third play of the game. That led to J.T. Barrett's 1-yard keeper for a score that put the Buckeyes ahead to stay.
Webb's 23-yard interception return for a TD put Ohio State up 17-0 less than a minute into the second quarter. It was the first pick-six this season for the Buckeyes, and the team-leading fifth interception for Webb.
Ohio State was up 24-0 when Barrett ran 28 yards for another touchdown after the first of Darnold's two fumbles when stripped while being sacked. Darnold was sacked eight times overall.
"The strip fumbles, when I'm in the pocket, those are though," Darnold said.
"That defensive line took a quarterback that we have a tremendous amount of respect for and he didn't set his feet all night," Meyer said. "That's the way we won that game."
Barrett, playing his final college game only about a two-hour drive from his hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas, broke Drew Brees' Big Ten career record for total offense with 12,697 yards. Barrett played 50 games and was 38-6 as a starter. His 147 touchdowns (104 passing, 43 rushing) are also a Big Ten record, 41 more than Brees at Purdue.
Music City Bowl
No. 20 Northwestern 24, Kentucky 23: Go ahead and question Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s decisions to go for it over and over on fourth down, even late in a move that nearly cost Northwestern dearly.
His defense had their coach’s back.
Northwestern broke up Kentucky’s 2-point conversion in a Music City Bowl that might be remembered more for injuries, ejections and a wild finish.
“I’m not sure words can describe that game,” Fitzgerald said. “Wow. What a great job by our young men. We had to persevere through so much.”
Justin Jackson ran for 157 yards and two touchdowns as Northwestern (10-3) finished off back-to-back bowl wins in consecutive years for the first time in program history. The Wildcats notched their second 10-win season in three years and third in six under Fitzgerald. The senior class also won its 27th game for the best stretch in more than a decade.
Both starting quarterbacks left in the first half with injuries, though Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson returned early in the third quarter. Kentucky lost running back Benny Snell Jr. to an ejection for contact with an official early in the second quarter, and Northwestern lost leading tackler and linebacker Paddy Fisher before halftime when he was ejected for targeting.
Kentucky (7-6) still had a chance to win after Fitzgerald tried to convert his fifth fourth down of the game only to turn it over for the fourth time on downs — this time at his own 39 with 2:31 left.
“Go for the win,” Fitzgerald said of his decision. “We got it did you see the replay? I did. It is what it is, and somebody had to make a play. We went for the win right there.”
Johnson ran for his second touchdown of the second half with 37 seconds left. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops went for the 2-point conversion rather than play for overtime. Johnson couldn’t connect with Tavin Richardson on the pass. That cost Kentucky a chance at its best season since 2007 and a second straight bowl loss.
“We just lost a heartbreaker by inches,” Stoops said.
With quarterback Clayton Thorson knocked out early in the second with an injured right knee, Northwestern outran Kentucky 333-65. Safety Kyle Quiero provided the winning margin taking Northwestern’s second interception 26 yards for a touchdown with 7:49 left.
New Mexico State 26, Utah State 20 (OT): Larry Rose III scored on a 21-yard run in overtime and New Mexico State won in its first bowl game in 57 years in Tucson, Ariz.
Utah State (6-7) had the ball first in overtime and Dominik Eberle hit the right upright on a 29-yard field goal, sending a groan through the Utah State crowd. Eberle made 16 of 18 field goals during the regular season, but missed three in the Arizona Bowl.
New Mexico State (7-6) ran two plays in overtime, with Jones bursting through a hole on the left side of the line to send the Aggies and their fans rushing onto the Arizona Stadium field. Jones finished with 142 yards on 16 carries.
Wake Forest 55, Texas A&M 52: John Wolford threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns, and Matt Colburn ran for 150 yards and the go-ahead score in Wake Forest’s victory in Charlotte, N.C.
The teams combined for 1,260 yards in one of the highest-scoring games in bowl history.
Wolford threw all four touchdown passes in the first half for Wake Forest (8-5). Colburn had a 1-yard touchdown with 2:18 left in the game to give the Demon Deacons the lead for good.
Wake Forest stopped the Aggies on downs on their final drive to seal the win.
Nick Starkel threw for a Belk Bowl-record 499 yards and also had four touchdown passes for Texas A&M (7-6). Christian Kirk caught 13 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns.
Jimbo Fisher now takes over as Texas A&M’s coach in place of the fired Kevin Sumlin. Interim coach Jeff Banks coached the Aggies on Friday.
N.C. State 52, Arizona State 31: Nyheim Hines had three 5-yard touchdown runs to help lead N.C. State past Arizona State in El Paso, Texas.
Hines finished with 72 yards on 16 carries for N.C. State State (9-4). The Wolfpack played in their fourth consecutive bowl game and sixth in seven years under coach David Doeren.
Arizona State (7-6) played its final game under fired coach Todd Graham, with former NFL coach Herm Edwards taking over the program.
N.C. State played without standout defensive end Bradley Chubb. Chubb, a projected top-10 pick in the NFL draft. The school announced a few hours before the game that he wouldn’t play.
Tennessee junior running back John Kelly (Oak Park) said on his Instagram account that he is entering the NFL draft.
The 5-foot-9, 205-pounder from Detroit led the Volunteers in rushing (778 yards) and tied for the team lead in catches (37).
... Ohio State All-America cornerback Denzel Ward did not play in the Cotton Bowl Friday, and will not return for his senior season.