At a certain point, probably soon, Trojan fans will start to take winning for granted. It will become expected, and if it deviates from the norm, there will be concern.
This is referring to the stunning greatness of redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. In another excellent performance against the Wildcats, Darnold further solidified his reputation as one of the best quarterbacks in the country. One great game or even two might be attributed to random chance, but Darnold just gets better each and every week, proving he is that special.
Just as Darnold’s excellence has become routine, Trojan football has become quite redundant the last three Saturdays. Behind Darnold, a stifling defense and major contributions from star players, the Trojans are rounding into form quite nicely. Three consecutive weeks of consistently stellar performances is a welcome attribute for any Trojan football team, especially this year.
While the Trojans did play an injured and fatigued Arizona team who hasn’t had a bye week in two seasons, they still thoroughly dismantled the Wildcats. They adjusted their game plan to stymie freshman quarterback Khalil Tate, an impressive athlete who struggled mightily passing the ball Saturday. They didn’t play down to the level of their opponent and scored a crucial victory on the road, their first this year.
All of this counts for something and the Trojan team should be deservedly happy going into their bye week. It is hard to definitively say how good the Trojans really are, but by the way they are playing on both offense and defense, it seems they can compete with anyone. Darnold is a big reason why.
No drive emphasized that more than the Trojan’s second score, when they marched down the field on the back of Darnold. With other Trojan quarterbacks over the past decade, this drive would have been dead on the first third down.
Facing a third and long, Darnold dropped back and was promptly met by a blitzing and unblocked defender. Using his strength and poise, Darnold calmly evaded the Arizona linebacker in the backfield and fought his way to the marker for a first down, taking on three more Wildcats to get those crucial yards.
Later in the drive, he converted another third down with his feet. The offense wasn’t listless at the time, but it definitely wasn’t functioning smoothly and needed a spark. This is the same type of spark it has needed countless times over the last few years and unfortunately hasn’t had.
Darnold is that spark. When the offense isn’t running properly, he still seems to deliver everyone there right on time. He ended the drive with another play aided by his feet, in this instance biding time until sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett was able to get open in the endzone.
If the Trojans don’t convert on that first third down, the defense goes back on the field in sweltering heat and who knows where the game goes. With Darnold, USC has a margin of error on offense they haven’t had in so long. In the past, a missed connection on a deep ball would effectively signal the end of a drive. Now, there is not even a flicker concern because of the immense confidence that Darnold can distribute the ball or make the play to keep the drive alive.
If Darnold has one area he needs to improve on, it is the accuracy on his deep balls. He made an adjustment in the second half and connected with junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for a touchdown, but the success of that play was mostly due to Smith-Schuster’s physical prowess and ability as a receiver.
With that being said, USC doesn’t need to throw 50-yard bombs to be effective on offense. They are at their best when Darnold is throwing quick hitting strikes to receivers on the sidelines or across the middle, and giving them space to maneuver. Since he poses such a threat as a runner, the wideouts and tight ends are gifted with single coverage and Darnold has the velocity to fit the ball in on time and in the perfect spot.
The drive with just less than three minutes left in the first half and no timeouts was the perfect example of what USC’s offense should look like on every series. College defensive backs simply can’t match up with Smith-Schuster, senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers and others when they get the ball with room to work.
It’s not all Darnold of course. The offensive line opened up massive holes on Saturday, and the defense turned in another stalwart performance. Each week, junior defensive end Uchenna Nwosu and junior cornerback Jonathan Lockett seem to get better and better. Since the disastrous fourth quarter against Utah, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has been dialing up the pressure with great effect.
The win against Arizona doesn’t mean USC is a top-10 team quite yet, but it signals improvement and consistency. While sometimes taken for granted, USC teams in the last half decade haven’t really modeled either of those traits week in and week out. Sometimes all it takes is one player to make that change, and so far Darnold is doing that and much more. Even if this becomes the new normal, his greatness should never be taken for granted. Trojan fans are lucky to be watching the start of something truly special.
Jake Davidson is a senior majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,” runs Mondays.