Three thoughts from a wild Pac-12 After Dark affair that saw USC escape with a 49–35 win:
1. Sam Darnold showed why people have been touting him as a potential No. 1 NFL draft pick AND why people think he should return to school. On USC’s second drive, Darnold was bailed out on a seemingly easy pick-six thanks to a dropped interception and an insanely dumb roughing the passer penalty that occurred a few seconds after he released the pigskin. Later in the drive, the Wildcats capitalized on an egregious Darnold throw, with the Trojans quarterback rolling out to his right on Arizona's one-yard line and unleashing a touch pass gone wrong right to cornerback Dane Cruikshank in the end zone. It was a terrible throw that was an even worse decision, especially since it happened on second down. Two offensive possessions later, good Darnold appeared, staying in the pocket and unloading a perfect dart to an open Steven Mitchell Jr. in the end zone to make it 21–3 Trojans in the second quarter.
That dime wasn’t even Darnold’s best throw of the night. After Arizona turned a 28–6 score into a tie game at 35, the redshirt sophomore led his team down the field on a flawless seven-play, 72-yard scoring drive. Facing a critical second-and-14, Darnold dropped a 33-yard beauty to tailback Ronald Jones II near the sideline—while moving to his left. There are very few professional quarterbacks who can complete a throw with that level of difficulty, let alone a collegiate signal caller. Darnold completed 10 of his 11 attempts in the second half on an array of different throws—whether it came under pressure, inside the pocket, outside the pocket, touch passes or balls with more juice on them. It was arguably Darnold’s best half of the entire 2017 campaign.
2. Khalil Tate consistently made opposing Pac-12 defenses looks silly during his monster October. USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast dialed up a great scheme to limit Arizona’s dual-threat quarterback, and his players executed it brilliantly early on. USC’s defense was focused on stopping Tate as a runner, and dared him to beat the unit with his arm. The Trojans positioned extra men in the box and left their cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. USC effectively dialed up pressure to disrupt Tate’s rhythm, with safety Marvell Tate’s delayed blitzes in particular achieving significant damage. The Wildcats had given up five sacks on the season coming into this game, and allowed Tate to be sacked five times Saturday night. On runs, USC clogged the gaps and did a great job holding the edges to contain Tate. As a result, it was a nightmarish first half for Arizona. The Wildcats only mustered 91 yards in the game’s first 30 minutes—with Tate accounting for only 56 of it himself—the fourth-lowest total in the Rich Rodriguez era, with the offense’s longest play going for 12 yards. Tate AVERAGED 13.5 yards per play in four October contests, which made USC stopping the explosive play so impressive.
Tate’s magic reappeared in the second half. USC was biting on facts it had bottled up in the first half, and didn’t seal off the edge nearly as well either thanks to Arizona running a lot more counter action. Tate ran for a 32-yard touchdown and tossed a 30-yard score to Shun Brown on fourth down to cut Arizona’s 22-point deficit to eight. After USC responded with a touchdown to make it a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, Tate led his Wildcats to two touchdowns and one two-point conversion to tie the Pac-12 bout at 35. However, when he had a Heisman moment opportunity down seven with 5:37 left, Tate lofted an ugly interception downfield on the first play of the drive. He was also picked off on the following drive, but that was after John Houston ripped the ball away from an Arizona wideout.
In all, Tate completed 14 of 31 throws for 146 yards with two touchdowns and interceptions apiece to go along with 161 yards and another score on 26 carries. His 5.4 yards per play was easily his least efficient game, but at least he and Rich Rodriguez showed they can adjust to a defense with a strong gameplan against them.
3. As much as I’d love to highlight another player with my third thought—sorry, Ronald Jones II—I’d be hard-pressed to discuss this game without the dumpster fire that was the Pac-12 referees. After a solid first half, the refs took over in the third quarter. Whether it was stopping play to discuss a possible penalty that they wouldn’t end up calling or reviewing a targeting that clearly didn’t happen, the zebras ruined the flow of the game. At one point in the third, there were five booth reviews in three minutes of game clock, and two of them were incorrect targeting calls. The mild-mannered Clay Helton was whistled for an unsportsmanlike conduct after running onto the field pleading with the refs to review a potential Tate fumble. Sure enough, the original ruling of Tate being down was overturned, but the penalty was regardless upheld. USC was flagged for a bizarre taunting penalty after a play that would have resulted in an Arizona fourth down, but kept the drive alive instead. Pac-12 refs needlessly turn exciting football games into a time-draining experience, and it’s a major issue that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott needs to address going forward because of how much it hurts the product.