Sam Darnold is one hell of quarterback prospect with a ton of upside, but Friday night in the Cotton Bowl, the 20-year-old gunslinger proved he’s not yet ready to take his game to the next level.
While USC’s defense put on a clinic in how to stop an Urban Meyer offense, Darnold and his offensive cohorts squandered countless opportunities to pull the Trojans back into the game. The 24-7 loss makes it seem like the Buckeyes owned the contest, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Darnold’s penchant for turning the ball over was the sole difference in that ballgame.
USC’s defense held Ohio State to just 277 yards of total offense and shutout the Buckeyes in the second half. The Trojans also held OSU to just 2-of-12 on third down and 1-of-2 on fourth. Meyer’s offense gained just 114 yards through the air and 163 yards on 38 carries (4.3 yards per carry). The Trojan defense did everything it could to win the game. But four turnovers by the offense doomed Clay Helton’s squad.
Darnold was responsible for three of those turnovers, fumbling twice and throwing an absolutely unforgivable pick-six. On each of those turnovers, a lack of awareness from the USC signal-caller was the culprit.
Early in the second quarter, with the Buckeyes up 10-0, Darnold dropped back, stared down top target Deontay Burnett and fired an interception to Damon Webb, who was baiting him. It was a simple read that Darnold just flat-out missed. Webb walked in to the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown.
That was Darnold’s 13th interception of the season and he finished the night with a total of 22 turnovers on the season.
On both of Darnold’s fumbles, he was loose with the ball in the pocket and Ohio State defenders were able to strip him. There is no excuse for someone with Darnold’s natural gifts to hand the ball to opponents like that.
Outside of those mistakes, Darnold moved the ball. He wound up throwing for 356 yards, but in key situations he made puzzling decisions or didn’t protect the football. He was also sacked eight times, some of which came because of his inability to make pre-snap reads for his pass protectors.
USC got into the Red Zone three times in the fourth quarter and failed to come away with any points. A missed field goal a Darnold fumble and a turnover on downs ended three promising drives that could have changed the game.
I’ve discussed Darnold’s otherworldly playmaking skills before at length. And his ability to read plays post-snap is usually very good. But he isn’t as polished at the quarterback position as a lot of other prospects.
Here’s the thing: Darnold didn’t start playing quarterback full-time until his junior year of high school. Before that, he was a linebacker and a receiver. Then he missed most of his junior season with a broken foot. His senior year was the first time he had a full season of quarterbacking before entering college.
A lot of top prospects are groomed at the position from the time they enter middle school. They go to camps, get personal quarterback coaches, specialize in the sport and work on mechanics tirelessly. Darnold was a multi-sport star who didn’t even play the position full-time until he was a senior. That matters.
He has insane upside, and could wind up being a phenomenal NFL quarterback. But Darnold has a lot of work and development to do.
By returning to USC, Darnold would have a veteran offensive line, two budding star wide receivers in Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman, a great young running back in Stephen Carr and a talented defense on the other side of the ball. He’d have outstanding weapons at his disposal and more time to develop.
Darnold would, in all likelihood, be a top 10 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. But he’s not prepared for the next level right now. He needs to return to school and smooth some of the rough edges off his game.