When redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold and the USC offense ran onto the field trailing Texas 17-14 in the fourth quarter, it was just business as usual. While other teams would have been nervous heading onto the field down three with 39 seconds to go, the Trojans had no fear. Instead USC marched down the field to set up a game-tying field goal. Despite two overtimes, the team added another to their collection of comeback wins.
“Thirty-nine seconds is an eternity for us,” quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Tyson Helton said. “We don’t necessarily worry about the time, we just worry about the plays we’re going to run and when we’re going to run them.”
Ever since the Rose Bowl and throughout the 2017 season, the team has displayed an incredible ability to remain focused and execute in close games. In fact, the offense has thrived in these moments. USC came back from 15 points in a Rose Bowl for the ages. They trailed Western Michigan by a touchdown in their home opener. Against Texas, they forced overtime with a field goal and successfully fought off what could have been the upset of the year.
USC’s turnaround from opening up 1-3 to closing out the season with nine straight wins has been well-documented. Since he took over the starting job last season against Utah, Darnold has been the glue that has held the offense together. Darnold’s ability to spread the ball around to various offensive weapons and his ability to extend plays is a unique asset very few other teams have. His skill set has been vital to the Trojans’ turnaround, but his temperament and leadership are what gives the Trojans the confidence to comeback from any deficit.
These intangibles are what sets Darnold apart. It’s the reason why Vegas viewed him as the Heisman favorite and why he’s viewed as one of the best prospects eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft. Darnold’s philosophy is simple.
“Keep your head down, put the blinders on,” the star quarterback said. “As long as we just do our job on every single play, it’s going to be hard to stop us.”
Darnold’s temperament is what sets the tone in the huddle and helps make USC think it can keep up with anyone.
“It starts with Sam,” junior tight end Tyler Petite said. “The guy’s totally composed, it doesn’t matter if there’s 39 seconds left in the game or it’s after that 4th-and-goal. He comes in and it’s just, ‘Hey let’s go score a touchdown.’ Just being able to have a guy that comes in with the same composure every single time is really calming to everyone.”
The Trojans rely on preparation to get through adversity. Sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett credits the Trojans’ preparation as what allows them to stay calm and trust each other, and the sentiment is echoed by Darnold.
“I always go back to how we train in the offseason and how resilient our guys are on offense, defense and special teams,” Darnold said. “We’re never going to give up. We have a bunch of players that we’re confident in to make plays when the time’s needed. We know that if we’re within a touchdown or two, or even three sometimes like the Rose Bowl, we’re able to come back. We have an explosive offense and a defense that can force three-and-outs whenever they need to. It’s a matter of getting our breaks when we get them and taking advantage of them.”
In the most pressure filled situations, Darnold doesn’t deviate from his tendency to spread the ball around.
“We have really good players and they’ve stepped up to the plate,” Tyson Helton said.
A big part of this execution when the team needs it most comes down to trust.
“He’s trusting the coaches, the technique, our practice so that when he throws that ball that the guys going to be right there to catch it,” Petite said. “That’s what makes Sam so great, is that he trusts everybody.”
While Darnold turned in a remarkable 2016 season, he feels he’s in a much better spot this year due to the improvement in his leadership. With many upperclassmen either going to the NFL or graduating, the Trojans came into spring camp with an emphasis on finding new leaders. True to his nature, Darnold stepped up to the challenge.
“I’ve been more vocal,” Darnold said.“I’m still trying to lead by example but I’m definitely more comfortable talking to the guys. Last year, when we had a bunch of seniors who were here four years prior to me, I was super nervous trying to talk to them all at once. Now that I’m in my third year, here it’s easier to talk to everyone.”
Darnold’s confidence on the field and off has set the tone for this season and has become a part of the team’s identity. Asked if there was a deficit that scared him, Darnold answered, “Maybe 50 points at halftime.” With Heisman hype and championship aspirations in the background, No. 14 will keep his blinders on and just keep doing what he does best.