As QB Sam Darnold's star rises, USC is becoming a scary team to play

SEATTLE -- While USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold was competing with Max Browne throughout the spring and into training camp, it was clear he was a talented player. He checked almost all the boxes: big, strong, athletic, an accurate thrower. His teammates seemed to respond well to him. When his time came, there was every reason to believe he would be successful.

A lot of those traits were also true about Browne. He was strong in the pocket and delivered a nice ball. On the deep throws, he was more advanced than Darnold. There were days in practice when Darnold was the superior player and others when Browne held that distinction. At the time, contrary to some of the more recently-formed opinions, there was sound reasoning behind going with either guy.

In evaluating them, though, there was one factor that, in hindsight, that worked heavily against Darnold: the quarterbacks’ yellow, non-contact jerseys. It was understood that Darnold was a significantly better athlete, but because he was off limits to defenders he didn’t really get a chance to showcase just how special he was at eluding pressure. For all the things he does well, that might be his best asset, and in Saturday’s 26-13 win against No. 4 Washington it was on full display.

“Talent-wise, you knew it was there, but you never know until you actually see a young man in a game,” said USC coach Clay Helton, who acknowledged that Darnold’s spot appearances in the season’s first three games helped the coaching staff better understand that part of his game. “Usually you can just look in the guy’s eyes and say, ‘Wow, he’s just a poised guy.’ No deer in the headlights, just, ‘Coach, let me play,’ and every opportunity he’s been given that chance, and [Saturday] was no exception.”

Heading into the game, there was a strong statistical case to be made for Darnold as the nation’s best quarterback under pressure. His 73.8 percent completion percentage against the blitz (45 of 61) ranked No. 1 nationally, his QBR (94.7) ranked No. 2 (one spot ahead of Washington QB Jake Browning), and he had thrown nine touchdowns to just one interception.

Washington coach Chris Petersen anticipated the Huskies would have trouble getting to him, which contributed to the decision to rely more heavily on extra rushers than any game previously this season.

“I think you bring what you got to bring,” he said.

Darnold was pressured on 10 plays against the Huskies, which matched the most he’s faced in a game this year, but he still managed to complete 7-of-9 pass attempts for 84 yards and a touchdown (he was also sacked once). On those plays, the Trojans averaged 8.0 yards, which is astoundingly high when considering that before Saturday opposing teams averaged just 1.22 yards per play when Washington got pressure on the quarterback. Against Utah two weeks prior, for example, the Utes averaged minus-0.13 yards on the eight plays the Huskies forced pressure on quarterback Troy Williams.

“He's fast. I kind of start with that,” Petersen said. “He took off a couple times and converted some things, and so you could see that right away. When he's standing back there, and we said that earlier in the week, when he's just standing back there, and he will, those receivers are going to get open.

“He's played with a lot of poise from the tapes that I've watched, and he certainly played with some pretty good poise tonight.”

Darnold’s evaluation of himself after the game Saturday actually lines up pretty well with Petersen’s.

“I wouldn’t say I’m more comfortable one way or the other,” he said when asked if he’s more comfortable throwing on the run. “I think our offensive line has done a great job protecting me, and I’m always comfortable with those guys in front of me. And I always know that unless they bring and extra guy I’m not going to have to run around or do any of that. I can just sit back there and make my reads.”

Regardless, his ability to sense pressure and keep plays alive gives the Trojans a dimension that few teams have and has been instrumental in their rise over the past several weeks. After dropping out of the AP poll following their loss to Alabama in the season-opener, the Trojans jumped back in at No. 15 on Sunday and should also see a bump from their spot at No. 20 in last week’s College Football Playoff rankings.

USC safety Chris Hawkins summed it up well.

"When he’s playing like this," Hawkins said. "I don’t think there’s too many teams in the country that really want to see us right now."