With 1:27 left in the Rose Bowl and his team needing a touchdown to even the score, Sam Darnold had a decision to make.
USC, marching downfield quickly, had a first down at Penn State’s 27-yard line. Taking the snap out of the shotgun, the redshirt freshman quarterback surveyed the field. He surely must have seen junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster wide open in the left flat for an easy 10-yard pick-up. That would have been the safe, conventional play: A first down catch to temporarily stop the clock and set up in the red zone with plenty of time remaining to tie the game.
Out over the middle in the end zone was another option. Sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett had run a post route through the teeth of the Penn State secondary, but he was well covered; linebacker Cam Brown was playing Burnett shallow and safety Marcus Allen was back deep. Any pass would have to be pinpoint accurate, or else it would be a sure interception and a comeback-that-wasn’t.
Very few quarterbacks in the country at any level would have taken that throw over the conventional, no-risk first-down conversion.
But if we’ve learned anything about Darnold, it’s that he’s hardly conventional, and that a high-risk, high-reward play is essentially his bread and butter.
It didn’t take long for offensive coordinator Tee Martin to realize he had something special in Darnold.
The redshirt freshman’s first career start was a 31-27 loss at Utah, but he had played well. Darnold completed 18 of 26 passes for 253 yards and had his team in position for a win until a last-second touchdown gave the victory to Utah.
Listening in on his headphones upstairs, Martin saw a certain bravado in the way Darnold conducted himself both on the bench and on the field.
“For me, listening upstairs from what he was saying on the sideline, he has this macho leadership about him, a sense of confidence,” Martin said. “I think the guys feed off that. I thought he did a good job of managing the offense and making plays, too. There were some decisions out there that he made that was next-level type stuff.”
The following week, Darnold earned his first career win in a breakout performance at home against Arizona State. By halftime, he had 212 yards passing. He finished with 352w yards in the air for three touchdowns as the offense dropped 41 points on the Sun Devils.
His teammates started coming around to him, welcoming a revamped offense after the early-season struggles under then-starting quarterback Max Browne. Darnold’s dual-threat ability had become apparent.
“It was exciting to see a guy like [Darnold],” junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said. “He can run the ball, throw the ball and run while he’s throwing.”
By now, head coach Clay Helton also probably knew the talent he had unleashed in Darnold. But the following week against Colorado, USC barely scraped by with a 21-17 win after the quarterback was responsible for three of the team’s four turnovers, fumbling twice and throwing his first career interception. Still, Darnold threw for 358 yards, his most of the season. And USC had just beaten the Pac-12 South leader.
So Helton didn’t make turnovers too much of a concern. He knew a quarterback as aggressive as Darnold would commit errors. He didn’t want Darnold becoming a robot. After the game, Helton reinforced that message to his quarterback, telling him to “drive it like you stole it.”
“You play the game with no fear and he does,” Helton said. “He does some things that people can’t do, so you let him do it.”
Lo and behold, Darnold came back strong the following week against Arizona and proved his coach right. Under the scorching Tucson sun, Darnold torched the Wildcats for five touchdown passes, throwing, scrambling and running circles all over the defense. Up big in the fourth, Helton pulled Darnold and the starters and put in the second unit. He expected the first-year starter — fresh off the best performance of his young career — to come off the field and give him a smile. Instead, he got a promise.
“Coach, there’s more out there,” Darnold said to Helton.
Specifically, Darnold was upset at a few deep balls that didn’t connect with receivers.
“You saw the long balls in the first half,” Darnold said. “Guys were open and I missed them.”
“He’s a perfectionist,” Helton added. “He’d be a great coach one day. He’s one of those guys that expects perfection and demands it of himself — as well as his teammates — and that’s important.”
Darnold answered his own call by dropping another five-touchdown performance the next week against Cal, and then led USC’s 45-20 rout over Oregon on Nov. 5.
That set up a date on the road with then-No. 4 Washington, an unbeaten team looking to ruin Darnold’s darling season. But the redshirt freshman stood his ground, out-dueling Heisman Trophy contender Jake Browning and silencing the raucous Husky Stadium crowd.
Both of his touchdown passes were vintage Darnold plays — tough throws to the back of the end zone and absolute lasers that were right on the money — but the one to redshirt freshman tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe to give USC a two-score lead in the fourth quarter would be a harbinger of things to come. On third-and-goal, Darnold rifled a pass over multiple defenders right into the outstretched arms of Imatorbhebhe, who hauled it in.
It was such a risky throw that redshirt junior defensive back Chris Hawkins thought it would be intercepted.
“It was one of the most beautiful passes I’ve ever seen,” he told Darnold on the sideline.
If he hadn’t by then, Imatorbhebhe definitely had gained complete faith in his quarterback.
“I don’t question Sam anymore,” he said. “I know he’s going to put it right where I can catch it, so it’s my job to catch it. He can make pretty much every throw on the field.”
The upset over Washington was the ultimate confirmation: This kid out of San Clemente was the real deal, and in a span of weeks, had gone from backup redshirt freshman to the quarterback of the future. But just for good measure, Darnold led the Trojans to blowouts over rivals UCLA and Notre Dame to end the season on an eight-game win streak.
And before USC’s postseason game, Martin had one more prophetic quote on Darnold.
“He’s going to push the defense and see how much he can get,” Martin said after the UCLA game. “He’s like a kid playing around the stove until he gets burned, but he’s going to pull his hand up. He’s like the kid who’s going to put his hand as close as he can again the next time.”
If it wasn’t apparent already, it’s clear that Darnold wouldn’t just settle for a simple little dump-off to the flat. Not if he can help it. And definitely not in the fourth quarter of a one-score game in the Rose Bowl.
No, Darnold didn’t care that he had plenty of time on the clock. Didn’t care that it was first down and not fourth down. Didn’t care that he was ignoring his best receiver for a wide-open reception and instead throwing to a well-covered sophomore who replaced the injured redshirt junior Steven Mitchell Jr. in the starting lineup earlier in the season.
Of course, he was going for it all. And of course, the throw was perfect, right over the outstretched arm of Brown. By the time Allen entered the picture, Burnett already had the ball and a foot in the end zone.
“How does he make this throw with that coverage?” marveled Kirk Herbstreit on the ESPN telecast.
Burnett credited his chemistry with Darnold.
“Me and Sam are always having talks,” he said. “I see what I see and what he sees around the field.”
Ultimately, though, the decision rested with Darnold to look off his top receiver and go for the deep ball. He said Burnett was supposed to “keep a straight line” on the play instead of run a post route.
“But just the player that he is, he made a play, and I saw him,” Darnold said. “So I’m happy I threw it to him and not the shallow (receiver).”
With that, the game was tied, and the rest is history.
If the Washington upset was the moment Darnold became a legitimate quarterback, the Rose Bowl was the game that propelled him to Heisman Trophy frontrunner next season. He broke Vince Young’s bowl record for total yards (473), along with the record for touchdown passes (5). He threw for 453 yards, eclipsing former USC quarterback Mark Sanchez’s mark of 400 yards in the 2009 Rose Bowl. He finished the season with multiple touchdown passes in nine straight games; the last USC quarterback to do that was Matt Leinart. And he’s just 19 years old.
If Sam Darnold followed the script, he probably would have set none of those marks. If he didn’t consistently go for the home run over the safety valve, USC might not have even been in the Rose Bowl. If he didn’t have that quiet confidence, that calm demeanor, that sense to stay poised and deliver clutch throws on the biggest stage, then we’re definitely not talking “USC” and “national championship” in the same breath next season.
Quite frankly, USC let Darnold be Darnold this season, and it was probably the best decision that could’ve been made.
“Certain animals are born certain animals, and you can’t change it,” Martin said.
In an ESPN interview after the game, Darnold was asked how he inspired a sense of belief in his teammates.
“I think just staying poised. I’m never going to change for anyone,” he said. “That’s just who I am.”