Darnold keeps No. 12 USC on streak toward major bowl berth
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) Sam Darnold was using his laptop at the team hotel to watch the game that would determine whether Southern California's Pac-12 title hopes were still alive when he heard cheers indicating that Oregon had scored a last-second touchdown to upset Utah.
It turns out Darnold's feed was delayed by a few seconds compared with what his teammates were viewing. It also was one of the few times Darnold was a step slower than everyone else on Saturday, when the redshirt freshman quarterback left rival UCLA utterly baffled.
Darnold threw for 267 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions to lead the No. 12 Trojans (8-3, 7-2 Pac-12) to their seventh consecutive win, a 36-14 victory over UCLA . Darnold also rushed for 27 yards, while his ability to extend plays with his mobility offered a striking role reversal from when Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley gave USC fits from 2012-14.
''I tell you, the creativity that Sam brings was evident,'' USC coach Clay Helton said.
UCLA coach Jim Mora went one step further before comparing Darnold to Tony Romo.
''A guy as mobile as he is, as heady as he is, keeping his eyes down the field the way that he can, that's what makes him special,'' Mora said. ''I've seen him on film and on TV, and I had a lot of respect for him coming into this game. In person, he's a truly special one.''
Despite the injury to quarterback Josh Rosen and poor play of the rushing offense, UCLA's defense had played well in a disappointing season. But Darnold was able to run away from and through a defense featuring Takkarist McKinley, Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Young, all likely future NFL players.
Even Darnold's second interception was more about what he could do, rather than what UCLA could do to stop him. He evaded pressure repeatedly before heaving a ball into the end zone, where it was picked off by Jayon Brown.
A similar throw put USC ahead midway through the second quarter, with Darnold putting the ball up for De'Quan Hampton to make a 31-yard touchdown reception. The seldom-used senior receiver boxed out Randall Goforth and extended his arms for the score.
That fearlessness is what led USC coaches to elevate Darnold to the starting job after three games in hopes of energizing a sluggish offense.
''He's going to push the envelope,'' offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. ''He's going to push the defense and see how much he can get. Like a kid, he's going to play around that stove until he gets burned. You're going to have to live with some of the mistakes.
''I'd rather him make the mistakes trying to make a play than to play scared, so we just got to live with it.''
But those mistakes have ended up fueling USC's surge. Darnold forces opposing defenses to account for him as a runner, helping free up space for running backs Ronald Jones and Justin Davis. USC has had a 100-yard rusher in all but two games with Darnold as the starter, while Davis rushed for 92 yards against Colorado and Jones had 93 at Washington in those wins over top 10 teams.
''We got like a double-edged sword,'' Jones said. ''It's great.''
Darnold has also spread the ball around in the passing game, with 11 different receivers catching balls against UCLA. Helton attributes Darnold's ball distribution to playing point guard in high school basketball.
Combine those attributes with a surging defense, and USC would have a strong case for a berth in a New Year's Six bowl game with another rivalry win over Notre Dame next week. If the Utes defeat the Buffaloes, USC would win the Pac-12 South on the head-to-head tiebreaker and play for the conference title for the second straight year.
Defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a graduate transfer from Utah, said he would be ''cheering super-hard'' for his friends and former teammates. Tu'ikolovatu also said he might send Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert a gift to thank him for upsetting Utah.
''He's the playmaker today,'' Tu'ikolovatu said of Herbert.
Everyone that was at the Rose Bowl, however, would say that title belongs to Darnold.
Said Martin: ''He's still a freshman and I like that part about our future.''
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