As the seconds ticked off in the fourth quarter, the minutes wound down and the game clock turned closer and closer to triple zeroes, two things became apparent at Stanford Stadium on Saturday. The first was that USC, trailing by two touchdowns, was playing with zero sense of urgency. The second? The man responsible for saving them was not Sam Darnold, but a true freshman.
If JT Daniels is going to leap onto scene this year as the freshman phenom he is hyped to be, then he’s going to have to grow up quickly. Through no fault of his own, Daniels now has a mountain of pressure on his shoulders to replicate what Darnold did last year: save a USC offense that, despite being loaded with talent, seems inept at times and subject to questionable play-calling and execution.
In Saturday’s 17-3 loss to Stanford, Daniels learned that the hard way. On his first series, which ended in a punt, he took a hard hit and bruised his hand. He came back two series later, but was swarmed by the Stanford defense. He looked rushed on his throws, never found a rhythm, never put a full drive together. For the first time in two years, USC failed to score a touchdown in a game. Stanford had not held USC to 3 points in a game since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.
“We didn’t play well the whole game,” Daniels said. “We left a lot of things on the board. There were plays that we should’ve made that we didn’t make.”
He finished with 215 yards on 16-of-34 passing. He threw two interceptions, both coming on ill-advised throws late in the fourth.
Part of that is youth. Daniels is 18 years of age. He was born in the year 2000, which is a scary thought. He is a true freshman, and he played like a true freshman facing a top-10 team on the road in his second-ever collegiate game.
“He should be in high school still and not on the road facing Stanford,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said.
While true, that is hardly a valid excuse. USC entrusted Daniels with the starting job right off the bat, throwing him into the spotlight to lead a program with high expectations year after year. And to be fair, Daniels did his best. He hung in there for as long as he could. He made some decent throws, scrambled away from pressure and looked like a college quarterback.
Where USC needs to find answers, though, is getting the ball in the hands of its best players. Freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who clicked right away with his high school teammate Daniels last week, was targeted just four times for two catches. Head coach Clay Helton said there was a special package for St. Brown called the “Ocho package,” which entailed using him as a slot receiver as well as an outside target.
“We’re trying to do everything possible to get it in our playmakers’ hands,” Helton said.
Perhaps they should have tried a bit harder. St. Brown was a non-factor offensively, not recording a catch until the fourth quarter. Sophomore running back Stephen Carr, who led USC with 5.2 yards per carry, was handed the ball just 10 times.
“They played a lot of snaps today,” Martin said, when asked about St. Brown and Carr’s lack of touches. “They played a lot of snaps.”
When pressed further, a fed-up Martin responded: “Next question.”
One can nitpick all that went wrong for the Trojans on Saturday, but what’s clear is that there is way too much talent on this program for it to put up 3 points on the board, to record no sacks and to give up four sacks on the other end.
“They’re an amazing team, but I don’t ever think we could get shut down entering a game,” Carr said. “Ever.”
USC, from the very start, was shut down. For all the four and five-star recruits up and down the roster, for all the preseason hype surrounding Daniels, this team did little to make any sort of first impression in the Pac-12.
“I don’t care how much talent you have,” Martin said. “You’ve got to execute.”
It starts with looking inward. JT Daniels is not Sam Darnold. Darnold was a special talent who did not look like a redshirt freshman when he took his first snaps as the starter. Daniels is a true freshman who played like one on Saturday. He won’t be pulling Darnold-type heroics right away, but a roster filled with talent shouldn’t need him to.
“This is an early game in the season against a top-10 team,” Helton said, “and all our hopes and aspirations and dreams are still out there and our team understands that.”
Sure, it is just one loss. But as Daniels will soon find out at USC, the honeymoon period won’t last very long.