Ohio State played against the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner. It didn’t go well.

Baker Mayfield’s Heisman candidacy got a huge boost with his performance in Oklahoma’s victory over the Buckeyes in September.

In the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29, Ohio State will face the quarterback who was the betting favorite for the Heisman entering this season. After torching Penn State for five touchdowns and 453 yards in the 2017 Rose Bowl, Southern California’s Sam Darnold was atop the list of Heisman contenders.

Darnold’s candidacy fizzled early. In the sophomore’s first six games, he threw for 12 touchdowns but was intercepted nine times. But in the second half of the season, Darnold showed why the Heisman buzz had been legitimate. In USC’s last seven games, he threw for 14 scores and was intercepted only three times.

If Ohio State is to beat the Trojans, containing Darnold will be at the top of the to-do list.

“It makes us real excited,” senior safety Damon Webb said. “(We want to) go out and make plays and show the world why we think we’re the best. We’re very competitive, so you look forward to playing other great players.”

Darnold combines a strong arm with a willingness to improvise until he spots a receiver.

“It’s going to be pretty difficult,” Webb said of that challenge. “When he scrambles, we still have to be on our man until he passes the line of scrimmage. We’re going to be ready for it.”

Mayfield is quicker and more apt to run than Darnold, but Webb does see similarities.

“They both have real good arms and can make any throw,” he said.

Darnold took plenty of criticism for his slow start, but USC coach Clay Helton said it was more a case of his supporting cast needing time to improve.

“I thought we’d go through some growing pains earlier through the season, just because of health issues and development of young players,” he said. “I didn’t see a lot of difference in what Sam was doing from last year to this year. I thought he was making good decisions — (he) maybe forced a ball every once in a while — but from quarterback play, I think the development of the guys around him has elevated our offense.”

Deontay Burnett has been a consistent threat for the Trojans. But the emergence of receivers such as Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr. has enabled USC’s offense to become more consistent.

Vaughns didn’t have more than 32 receiving yards until the fifth game. He has had at least 59 receiving yards in seven of the last nine games.

Pittman missed the first three weeks with an ankle injury and had only three catches in his first four games. He made steady progress and then had a breakout game against Stanford in the Pac-12 title game with seven catches for 146 yards and a touchdown.

Like USC’s passing game, Ohio State’s pass defense got off to a slow start this season. But that part of the Buckeyes’ game improved markedly as the year progressed. Denzel Ward developed into a shutdown cornerback, and Webb and Jordan Fuller improved as a safety tandem.

USC will pose the biggest test since Oklahoma.

“Their skill players are some of the best we’re going to see this year,” Webb said. “We’re definitely looking forward to the challenge.”