It wasn’t hard to see this one coming. USC hadn’t lost in over a year, had several key players injured and was headed to the Palouse to face a really good Washington State team. It was a Friday night game on a short week and the Trojans are in the midst of a 12-week stretch without a bye. It wasn’t hard to call for an upset. And that’s what we got, as the Cougars topped USC 30-27.
While USC’s loss could be attributed to any of a dozen factors — its lengthy injury list, three missing starting offensive linemen, questionable play-calling, an outstanding opponent, a hostile road atmosphere — the top reason was simple: Sam Darnold has not been the same quarterback in 2017 that he was last season. Darnold is a phenomenal talent with next-level vision and diagnostic skills, but he’s been average at best for the majority of the time this season. That has to change if the Trojans are going to bounce back from this tough loss.
Darnold played the worst game of his college tenure Friday night. He completed 15 of 29 passes for a career-low 164 yards, with no touchdowns, an interception and a fumble on USC’s final possession that allowed the Cougars to seal the win. He made bad reads, missed open receivers and even some of his completed passes were behind receivers. He was not the guy we saw for most of last season.
Cracks have begun to show in Darnold’s exterior for several weeks. He’s been just a split-second slower than he was last year. He’s compiled nine touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Last season he had 31 touchdowns and just nine picks. Yes, some of his 2017 interceptions haven’t been his fault, but still, he’s far looser with the ball than he was a year ago.
What’s worse, he’s making bad reads when choices are given to him. USC runs a lot of zone read plays where Darnold is allowed to decide whether he should give the ball to his running back or keep it himself. He almost never keeps the ball, so defenses virtually ignore him on those plays. On Friday night he had at least a half-dozen opportunities where half the field was open to him if he’d kept the ball, but he repeatedly chose to give it to his back. In the red zone Darnold kept the ball twice and scored touchdowns both times. Those were his only keepers on those plays all night.
Darnold is also set up with a ton of run/pass option plays, where he can either hand it to the running back or fire the ball to a receiver on a quick throw. On Friday night his reads were terrible. He regularly chose to hand the ball off into stacked boxes, or pull the ball back and throw into tight coverage. While he almost never made those mistakes as a redshirt freshman last year, he’s making them routinely this season.
Sam Darnold is a phenomenal quarterback with All-Pro upside, but he’s not perfect. That has been on display over the last few weeks as he’s routinely missed open receivers for big plays, forced balls into coverage and failed to build chemistry with receivers other than Deontay Burnett. While USC’s play-calling has left a lot to be desired, Darnold hasn’t consistently risen to the occasion when his team has needed him.
Maybe Darnold wasn’t ready for all this hype. He’s a redshirt sophomore and made just his 15th career start Friday night. Maybe he needs another year to continue his development. Maybe he needs more time in the film room, more time to develop his occasionally questionable footwork. Maybe he’s just thinking too much and not playing with the loose, carefree attitude he showed last season. Whatever the problem is, he needs to figure it out.
At this point, USC is still almost certainly the favorite to win the Pac-12 South. A loss on the road to a good No. 16 Washington State team won’t stain the team’s resume too much. The Trojans need to regroup, heal their injuries and find a way to get their dormant offense moving again. The first key to making that happen is fixing whatever ails their quarterback.
If they want a chance to make this a special season, the 2017 Trojans need 2016 Sam Darnold.