Elusive freshman quarterback Sam Darnold has USC on the rise
LOS ANGELES (AP) Sam Darnold has a knack for turning potential disasters into something special.
Southern California's remarkable freshman quarterback does it all the time on broken plays. Instead of robotically falling on the ball when a snap goes awry or a handoff is misplaced, he often attempts to improvise a happy ending to a perilous situation.
''Not always, but sometimes it's good to try to make a play,'' Darnold said. ''I like trying it sometimes.''
Speaking of potential disasters, Darnold has done a pretty great job saving USC's season as well.
Darnold is the engine driving the No. 15 Trojans (7-3, 6-2 Pac-12) from their 1-3 start to a six-game winning streak heading into Saturday night's crosstown showdown with UCLA (4-6, 2-5).
With a confident arm and that incredible elusiveness in the backfield, Darnold has completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 2,161 yards this season. He has 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions, and he does it all with a buccaneering playing style that reminds everybody football is supposed to be fun.
More importantly, Darnold has won six straight starts since losing his first. The Trojans have roared back from their brutal September schedule into contention for a Pac-12 South title, taking the pressure off first-year permanent head coach Clay Helton in the process.
''He's not a finished product by any means, but he's helping us win football games,'' said Helton, the Trojans' former quarterbacks coach. ''When you have a kid with his instinct and creative ability, I don't think you handcuff him. I told him, `Drive it like you stole it.' You (have to) play the game with no fear, and he does.''
Darnold and Helton say they don't waste time thinking about where USC might be if Darnold had been the Trojans' starting quarterback from the season opener. Max Browne started the Trojans' losses away from home to top-ranked Alabama and defending Pac-12 champion Stanford before Darnold seized the job.
Darnold's confidence hit a new peak last weekend when he outperformed Washington star Jake Browning, passing for 287 yards and two scores in the Trojans' 26-13 upset of the previously unbeaten and fourth-ranked Huskies.
Darnold slipped through Washington's vaunted defense with his remarkable knack for scrambling and an ability to avoid trouble in the pocket. His unflappability might be the freshman's most pronounced asset.
''I like to credit my coaches in high school and Pop Warner, but I think it comes down to my family, and how I'm raised,'' Darnold said. ''My parents did a good job keeping me confident and knowing that you just have to be cool with yourself. You can't control the past. You have to look ahead.''
Darnold grew up in Orange County watching Pete Carroll's dominant USC teams of the previous decade. He became enamored with the close-to-home school's swagger, and he eagerly committed to USC even with Cody Kessler, Browne and touted recruit Ricky Town blocking his path to playing time.
Kessler kept the starting job for three years, and Browne served as his backup for the past two seasons. Darnold watched and practiced as a redshirt last year, dazzling his teammates and the coaches with his performances on the scout team.
Darnold pushed Browne for the starting job in spring practice, which ended without Helton naming a starter. Helton clearly felt loyalty to Browne, the big-armed passer who stuck with the tumultuous USC program through multiple coaching changes.
But after that 1-2 start, Helton couldn't ignore Darnold - and now the rest of college football can't ignore the Trojans, who returned to the AP Top 25 this week.
USC won't need any extra motivation for its final two regular-season games against rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. The Trojans would need help from a Colorado loss to reach the Pac-12 title game, but their fans are already looking forward to a full season with Darnold in charge in 2017.
''We've got a lot of potential,'' Darnold said. ''We just want to keep pushing through this season and get the most out of it.''
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