The game featured plenty of lowlights for the Buckeyes, none more so than during a crucial second-quarter drive with OSU facing a 14-3 deficit.
The Buckeyes drove deep into USC territory, but a pair of penalties and a missed field goal changed the complexion of the game. An impressive catch-and-run by Ray Small put the ball inside the USC 5, but a holding penalty by fellow receiver Dane Sanzenbacher negated much of the gain and put the ball back to the 26. Two plays later quarterback Todd Boeckman connected with Brian Robiskie on a touchdown reception, but another holding call – this one on offensive guard Ben Person – took the points off the scoreboard and moved the ball back to the 31. Three plays later kicker Ryan Pretorius pushed a 46-yard field goal attempt wide right.
"It could have been 14-10 right there and it's a whole different ballgame," said offensive lineman Alex Boone. "I'm running over to Robo to celebrate and see a flag on the ground. That changed the momentum of the game right there.
"And that's the thing. It was a big game, and it seems like every big game we end up doing it to ourselves. I'm not saying USC isn't a great team. They are. But we helped them out with a lot of stupid penalties."
Mistakes cost the Buckeyes in their losses to Florida and LSU in national title games, and turnovers and penalties once again reared their heads against the Trojans. Ohio State lost the turnover battle, 3-1, and committed 10 penalties for 78 yards.
"When you turn it over and have penalties that stop drives and just cannot take control in any way, shape or form, a good team is going to not let you get back into it," OSU head coach Jim Tressel said.
That second-quarter scoring threat was the closest Ohio State would get for the rest of what would become a very long night. When the offense got the ball back in the waning moments of the first half, Boeckman threw an interception to USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, who returned the pass 48 yards for a touchdown that increased the lead to 21-3 at halftime.
The Buckeyes did not seriously threaten again.
While USC found its rhythm in the second half, Ohio State fell apart offensively. The Buckeyes gained 177 yards of total offense in the first half using a quarterback tandem of Boeckman and true freshman Terrelle Pryor, but Trojans made the necessary halftime adjustments and allowed Ohio State 30 yards of offense in the second half – only 2 yards in the third quarter.
The game started well for the Buckeyes despite the absence of injured running back Chris "Beanie" Wells. Tressel had Boeckman and Pryor switch nearly every-other-play and that allowed Ohio State to keep the USC defense off balance. The Buckeyes drove all the way to the USC 5 on their second drive, but more miscues forced the team to settle for a 29-yard Pretorius field goal. After getting to the 5, Pryor lost 4 yards on a draw, and then Boeckman lost 4 more on an option keeper. Facing a third-and-goal from the 13 then turned into a third-and-goal from the 18 after an OSU false start penalty. Tressel then went conservative, calling for a Daniel "Boom" Herron run up the middle that set up Pretorius' boot.
USC did not take long to answer the score, responding with a touchdown at the end of a seven-play, 74-yard drive. Sanchez finished the drive by connecting with fullback Stanley Havili for a 35-yard score as the Trojan streaked down the sideline ahead of Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman.
The lead extended to 11 points after the Trojans added another touchdown on their next possession. Sanchez again threw a scoring pass, this time to tight end Blake Ayles for a 1-yard touchdown.
Boeckman threw two interceptions in what would be his final start until the 2009 Fiesta Bowl against Texas. He completed 14 of 21 passes for 84 yards, while Pryor completed 7 of 9 passes for 52 yards. Pryor added 40 yards rushing on 11 carries, and Herron added 51 yards on the ground.
Sanchez threw four touchdown passes and completed 17 of 28 throws for 172 yards with an interception. Havili caught a team-high five passes for 49 yards, and Joe McKnight led the USC rushing attack with 105 yards on 12 carries.