Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold threw for over 300 yards in Saturday’s 38-10 win over Oregon State. He completed 66 percent of his passes and recorded three touchdowns. But the first few questions he fielded from the
postgame media scrum were critical of his performance. He was asked about what he needed to improve on, about what went wrong on his lone interception and about whether it was frustrating.
Finally, someone asked if this game was the most comfortable he’s felt with his receiving corps with junior Deontay Burnett and redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns both on the field. He nodded, and then a smile crept across his face.
“A positive question,” he said.
That’s the way it is at USC, where you beat a conference opponent by 28 points, where you rebound from a tough loss with a comfortable win to advance to 5-1 on the season, and yet there is more negative than positive press.
Indeed, USC could’ve played better against Oregon State. There were turnovers, fumbles, lapses and miscues that would have cost the Trojans against any competent opponent. There were periods of the offense being stagnant. The only thing that kept the Trojans’ mistakes from coming back to bite them was the fact that the Beavers are an objectively terrible team with no defense and a backup quarterback under center.
And yet, we saw Darnold and the Trojans do everything they could to give Oregon State momentum early in the game. In the first quarter, Darnold fumbled after the ball slipped out of his hands while he attempted a pass, and in the second quarter, he threw an ugly interception right into the hands of the defense. Both turnovers were in USC territory, with only the ineptitude of Oregon State’s kicking game and offense preventing points from being scored as a result.
In the context of the season, the Trojans took care of business on Saturday. They did their job against an inferior opponent. They rested some of their starters late in the game and found playing time for their reserves. Redshirt freshman backup quarterback Matt Fink subbed in for Darnold in garbage time, recording his first career touchdown on 51-yard gallop. And blind redshirt sophomore long snapper Jake Olson took a snap for the second time this season.
“I think we played pretty well,” senior safety and team captain Chris Hawkins said. “The score says we played well, the stats say we played well.”
But not the eye test. For a team that needed a clean game in all three phases before taking on two tough opponents in Utah and Notre Dame, it didn’t get it. The defense was strong, holding Oregon State to just one touchdown. But on special teams, redshirt junior cornerback and punt returner Ajene Harris muffed a punt that was recovered in USC territory, and there otherwise were no noteworthy plays.
And the offense … oh, the offense. Sure, it racked up over 500 yards, Darnold put up good numbers and 13 different receivers caught passes. But the offense still lacks an identity. It lacks the flow, the rhythm that we saw last season when Darnold would just take the snap and work his magic. Instead, it looks complacent, stale. Darnold has not moved out of the pocket as much this season, but his deep passes often fall incomplete and he is just not as in sync with his receivers as he needs to be.
Darnold was so pedestrian that Oregon State cornerback Kyle White called him “nothing special” and a “normal Pac-12 quarterback.” Whether he had any right to criticize the opponent after his team was just thumped by 28 points is debatable, but his comments are not exactly inaccurate — at least this season. Entering Saturday’s game, Darnold ranked sixth — out of 12 Pac-12 quarterbacks — in total offense with 282.8 yards per game and just seventh in pass efficiency. For reference, he finished last season ranked second in the conference in pass efficiency, trailing only Washington’s Jake Browning.
To get its hype train back on track, USC must make fixing its offense a priority, which means it must Make Sam Darnold Great Again. Whether it’s the playcalling, the receivers or Darnold himself, these issues will hurt USC next week against Utah and in two weeks in South Bend.
“When you have over 500 yards and your guts are hurting inside that you left more out there, that’s a good feeling to have,” head coach Clay Helton said. “If that’s your worst day, be happy.”
The Trojans can be “happy” with Saturday’s win. But they cannot — and should not — be satisfied.
Eric He is a junior studying journalism. He is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.