Poe’s Perspective: Darnold’s sophomore slump can’t be ignored

We’ve got to talk about Sam Darnold.

I didn’t want to write this column. Heading into the season, I was basically the conductor of Darnold’s hype train heading on an express route to New York for the Heisman ceremony. I read all of the features from ESPN to Sports Illustrated, and although we’re supposed to adopt a semi-objective stance as sports reporters, I was as Team Darnold as you could get.

Then the Western Michigan game happened. I shrugged it off, swore he’d bounce back and immediately felt vindicated by the 600-plus offensive yards of the Stanford game. But then the Texas game happened, and the Cal game, and I began to worry, then doubt, if those Heisman hopes would come to fruition.

It’s time to face the facts. Darnold doesn’t rank in to the Top 10 of the country in most quarterback statistics. He’s No. 16 in passing yards and No. 21 in passing percentage. He’s thrown only nine touchdowns so far, which ties him for No. 19 in the nation.

The scramble-savvy mobile quarterback isn’t even finding success on the ground. Darnold did rush for a touchdown this year, but he’s taken so many sacks for a loss that his rushing total evens out to a zero. Compare that to his freshman performance: After starting in four games last year, he’d already rushed for 125 yards.

Darnold is, however, near the top of the country in one statistic: interceptions. He’s tossed seven already this year, almost equal with his touchdown total. That’s almost an average of two per game, which leaves Darnold only slightly behind Tanner Lee of Nebraska and Cal’s Ross Bowers, who coughed up four in one game while being absolutely terrorized by the USC secondary last week.

I’m not listing these statistics to beat a dead horse, and I’m not saying that Darnold isn’t talented. He is talented, and he might just be one of the best quarterbacks we’ve ever seen at USC. But he’s young, and he’s prone to mistakes, and he’s still smoothing down some of his edges.

The fact of the matter is that last year, Darnold was a secret weapon that head coach Clay Helton didn’t even realize he had in his back pocket. Defensive coordinators across the country were left scrambling to plan for the threat of a quarterback who could scramble that skillfully, run that quickly and throw that deftly.

But this season, he wasn’t a surprise. Everyone in the country saw him coming. That is, after all, what happens when your face is plastered on the front cover of Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine and every other college sports rag in the country. It’s hard to stay incognito when NFL fans start “#SuckForSam” campaigns in hopes of tanking to earn the No. 1 draft pick to select their new quarterback messiah.

That lack of surprise took away a little bit of Darnold’s edge. One of his greatest skills is throwing into coverage, sometimes tossing to a receiver in double or triple coverage. When it works, it’s a thing of beauty. But when it doesn’t, it’s another interception to add to his statistics.

Darnold is having to find balance this year — when to throw and when not to, how to weight his passes to the inside or outside of a route, which receivers can win 50/50 balls — and it’s showing. Now that corners and safeties are aware of his proclivity for throwing into danger, they’re salivating over all of his longer passes with the hopes of picking off a Heisman candidate. So when Darnold makes a mistake, he pays for it.

I’m not giving up hope for Sam. Not yet, at least.

For better or worse, he’s still quarterbacked the team to a 4-0 start to the season, staying cool in overtime thrillers and last-minute comebacks to keep the team’s record clean. But for Darnold to return to his place on a pedestal, he’ll need to make some changes. A trip to New York might not be in his future. But if Trojan fans are lucky, Darnold’s rocky start will even out to a trip to Atlanta this winter.

Julia Poe is a junior studying print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, Poe’s Perspective, runs Thursdays.