LOS ANGELES-, CA-USC found itself in an unexpected dogfight against Western Michigan in its season opener at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Quarterback Sam Darnold and the Trojans were locked up at halftime with the Broncos, 14-14. A 28-point scoring explosion by the Trojans in the fourth quarter finally put down the upset-minded Broncos, 49-31.
OF course, Darnold, the Trojans’ Heisman Trophy candidate, had a hand in his team’s victory, completing 69 percent of his passes for 289 yards on the afternoon. But Darnold didn’t have quite the coming out party that has become expected of the redshirt sophomore. For one, he wasn’t able to find the endzone to complete a touchdown pass like he typically did last season.
Darnold also threw two interceptions in the game, an unusual outing by the turnover-conscious quarterback. With so many expectations raised of him and his teammates this season, Darnold and the Trojans will have a target on their backs all season. It’s a good challenge for USC and its heralded signal-caller.
A year-ago this time the Trojans were led onto the field by then quarterback Max Browne in a lopsided 52-6 loss in their season opener against a top-ranked Alabama team.
A lot can happen in a year, as many of you know. And within one year of taking over the USC’s starting quarterback position, Darnold has evolved from a backup to become a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. He’s also projected as the number one overall pick in next year’s NFL draft as well. But’s it’s way too early for that.
Darnold has been electric since stepping into the starting role last season, leading the Trojans to nine consecutive victories, including an epic 52-49 Rose Bowl win in which he threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns over a No. 5 ranked Penn State team.
After finishing the season with 31 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards, Darnold has bolstered expectations for this year’s Trojan squad, nailing down a N0. 4 overall ranking before its matchup against an unranked but tough Western Michigan team. Darnold is prepared to take the spotlight as one of the top college QB’s in the country, as he told the Associated Press.
“I think I’ve prepared my whole life for this, but at the same time I never knew it was going to get like this,” Darnold said. “This opportunity doesn’t come around all that often so you have really got to take advantage of it. I think that’s kind of been the story line throughout my whole football career is just taking advantage of opportunities when they are given to me. I’m not trying to blow this one.”
It’s hard to imagine that Darnold was riding the pine just a year ago. What if USC head coach Clay Helton had decided to let Browne ride out the season, despite his struggles, would there still be speculation of whether or not the Jets will take Darnold with the number one overall pick? Probably not.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and as well as things have worked out for Darnold and the Trojans, it is almost scary to think of a scenario where his immense talent and potential are lost among the wrong rotational decisions.
Everyone around Darnold feels the energy and confidence that he brings to each game.
“He just continued to work and then the job came back and became his, and he’s the same guy he always was. [Players] like playing with him. You see an excitement and energy when he takes the field. It kind of gives a sense of confidence as an offense, when he steps unto the huddle,” said USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin.
It will be interesting to see how this season plays out. Darnold may find it harder to continue his dominant trajectory while being the focal point of opposing defenses. With the loss of players like Juju Smith Shuster, Darnold will be forced to make more big plays, something he has already shown an aptitude for.
While several NFL teams hungrily eye Donald, there is speculation that No. 14 may remain with the Trojans for his final two years of eligibility, presumably keeping the Trojans in the national rankings along the way. As Darnold told Sportcenter earlier in the year, “I don’t think any team should tank their season for me.”
It will be fun to watch how this season plays out. Will Donald continue his ascension from second-string, to starter, to star, to the eventual Heisman Trophy winner and number one overall pick? USC fans can’t wait to find out.”