A Google search of “Sam Darnold expectations” brings a bevy of results focusing on how the redshirt sophomore handled all the pressure that comes after winning the Rose Bowl in your first season as a starter.
Darnold’s only loss in 2016 came against Utah, his first start after taking the reins from Max Browne. Darnold’s numbers shocked the college football world, as he went on to throw 31 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, while running for 250 yards on a four-yard-per-carry average.
The highlight of his young career, as of now, is the 52-49 comeback from behind victory he and the Trojans pulled off against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. In the contest, Darnold threw five touchdowns and 453 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown to Deontay Burnett in the closing minutes, tying the score at 49. A McSorley interception led to Matt Boermeester’s 46-yard game-winning field goal.
The hype from this game put Darnold in the Heisman conversation, and gave rise to the idea that he may be taken first overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, if he should declare. There are multiple quarterback-hungry teams (e.g., Jets and 49ers) that are projected to be near the top of the draft order, and Darnold’s mix of strong passes and power running makes him an interesting prospect.
Fall of 2017, however, has definitely not started the way Darnold would have liked. USC went wire to wire with Western Kentucky in the opening game of the season, before scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter to pull away. The Mustangs were in a position to pull off the upset, as Darnold tossed two interceptions, and ran for minus six yards in the match. To his credit, Darnold did run for an 11-yard touchdown that tied the game 21-21 in the third frame.
Since then, interceptions have been the story of Darnold’s season. He threw two more in the following two games against Stanford and Texas. The Trojans needed double overtime to finish off the Longhorns, who now have an overall record of 1-2. Darnold threw for three touchdowns, the last of which was a 25-yarder to Burnett in the first overtime period. However, Darnold struggled, running the ball again, carrying it six times for minus 12 yards.
Another too close for comfort win against Cal made it clear that USC’s wire to wire way of winning was unsustainable. Then came Washington State, a team that scored with ease on offense, and stopped the pass on defense. For Darnold, it was a bad game waiting to happen.
On the ground, Darnold did some damage, rushing for 25 yards and two touchdowns. That was to be expected, as the Cougars allowed 129 rushing yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game on defense. Through the air, however, Wazzu proved to be every bit the challenge they were supposed to be.
Darnold went 15-29 for 164 yards and an interception, and lost a fumble with a minute left in the fourth quarter on a strip sack by Jahad Woods, giving the Cougars the 30-27 win. The loss dropped USC to number 14 in the nation with a slightly difficult schedule remaining.
The Trojans should easily get back to their winning ways against a 1-4 Oregon State team, but will face two tough tests in the subsequent weeks. First comes 20th-ranked Utah at the Coliseum. The Utes’ defense does allow over 200 yards passing per game, but they have snagged nine interceptions in their first four games. Defensive back Julian Blackmon leads the team with two, and will be looking to take advantage of any Darnold error.
Then USC travels to South Bend, Ind. to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Their pass defense is definitely not their strength, as the team allows 241 yards and two touchdowns per game through the air. This game could serve as an image booster for Darnold, as it will be aired on October 21 in prime-time (7:30 p.m. ET), on NBC. If Darnold puts up the stats he should against Notre Dame and heads home with a win, many of his previous errors may be forgiven.
A shaky start to the season might make NFL teams reconsider if Darnold is franchise quarterback material. However, he did put up monster numbers just a year ago, so he clearly has the capacity for great quarterback play. There are still seven games, and the inevitable bowl game USC will qualify for, for Darnold to prove he is the real deal. If he corrals his crazy interception numbers, he will very likely hear his name near the top of the NFL Draft.