When redshirt freshman Sam Darnold exited the players’ tunnel and stepped onto the field for pregame warmups this past Saturday, it was his first time doing so as USC’s starting quarterback at the Coliseum. One fan — decked out in USC gear — gave Darnold the coronation.
“You’re the one, Darnold!” he yelled from his front-row seat.
Welcome to Saturday nights at the Coliseum, Sam Darnold.
In his first start at the Coliseum, Darnold took the reins of the Trojan offense and drove them for a season-high 523 yards, en route to a 41-20 victory over the visiting, then-undefeated Arizona State Sun Devils.
Darnold finished the night 23-of-33 passing for 352 yards and three touchdowns. His longest score came on a 67-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, who finished the night with seven receptions Additionally, Darnold ran in a three-yard score during the third quarter of the game.
Throughout Saturday night, Darnold was spreading the wealth offensively — connecting with nine different receivers in the game. Sophomore receiver Deontay Burnett finished the game with a career-high in receptions (7) and receiving yards (93).
“It’s exciting to see a guy like [Darnold], being able to run the ball, being able to throw the ball and run while he’s throwing,” junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said. “Seeing him out there gets us fired up because we see it in practice and now we are seeing it in games.”
Since Darnold arrived at USC as a freshman last season, much has been made of his mobility and athleticism at the quarterback position. In his first two starts leading the Trojan offense, Darnold has put his ability as a mobile quarterback on display.
In addition to rushing for a touchdown in both the Utah and ASU contests over the past two weeks, Darnold has exhibited an impressive ability to navigate in the pocket and avoid rushers. On several occasions Saturday, Darnold escaped the Sun Devils’ rush and was able to roll out to either find a open receiver or throw the ball away. Due highly in part to Darnold’s mobility, USC did not surrender a sack offensively against ASU.
“[Darnold] just brings some really good movement, and he’s able to make things happen with his feet,” sophomore tight end Tyler Petite said. “And sometimes he can just — on the dot — stop and make a really solid throw and a good decision.”
When USC head coach Clay Helton announced on Sept. 19 that he would be switching quarterbacks, a fair share of criticism regarding the decision followed. Darold has done everything possible to reaffirm the decision which Helton made.
When comparing Browne’s first three games as the starter this season to the last two games started by Darnold, there is evidence that the offense has been revitalized by the latter. Browne failed to surpass the 200-yard passing mark in all of his three starts to begin the season; he averaged 158 yards per game the first three games, which did come against strong defenses. Meanwhile, Darnold has averaged 302.5 yards per game over his last two weeks as the starter. Overall, the USC offense has averaged 494.5 total yards per game under Darnold; it averaged 323 yards a game under Browne’s control.
Darnold’s revamp of the offense has not only shown fruit in the passing game, but possibly even more so in the USC rushing attack. Senior running back Justin Davis has broken out for big performances on the ground since Darnold took over as the starting quarterback.
Against Utah, Davis broke out for 126 yards rushing and a touchdown score. Against ASU, Davis ran for 129 yards — including a 37-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter. In the three games before Darnold was the team’s starter, Davis was averaging 45 yards a game on the ground.
“Offensively, I thought the balance of a 100-yard rusher and a 300-yard passer played very clean,” Helton said. “The distribution to the receivers by [Darnold] and hard running by Justin Davis was the key to the offense.”
While Darnold’s numbers stand out offensively, one statistical category experienced a season-best against ASU: turnovers. USC had its first turnover-free game of the season against ASU, a statistic which is oftentimes overlooked and can make an immense difference.
Following Darnold’s dissection of what was a suspect ASU defense, many have destined Darnold to be the savior of USC football as its rising star at quarterback. When the Trojan offense is pitted against No. 21 Colorado’s defense — which ranks first in the Pac-12 (allowing 290.4 yards a game) — next week, Darnold’s coronation will be put to the test.