PASADENA, CA-Quarterbacks usually get all the glory when their team wins. For the USC Trojans, when things went bad early in the 2016 college football season, a good portion of the blame, fair or unfair, was put squarely on the shoulders of Max Browne.
When coach Clay Helton inserted Sam Darnold into the starting lineup as the team’s new starting signal-caller, the Trojans’ offense took off. After a 1-3 start to their season, the Trojans were just looking for respectability, trying to take each week and each game-one at a time.
The Trojans’ offense began to hit a high note after that sub-par start and the rest of the country got the chance to see a redshirt freshman in Darnold perform at the highest level like it was old hat.
“With the changes the coaches decided to make at the quarterback position, I feel like Sam Darnold has made everyone around better,” USC wide receiver Darreus Rogers said during the team’s media day activity a couple of days prior to the Rose Bowl Game. “With the type of talent that we have, Sam Darnold has been able to spread the ball around to each one of us. At any moment any one of us can go at you. We have two great running backs, a whole lot of talent at the wide receiver position. So I feel like if everyone touches the rock (then) how are you going to stop us?”
In leading USC to a remarkable turnaround and a victory in the Rose Bowl Game against Big Ten champion Penn State, there is no doubt that Darnold has become the toast of the town for the Cardinal and Gold. It’s not too difficult to see why.
He went 31-to-9 in the touchdown to interception category. On the season, Darnold threw for 3, 086 yards while completing just over 67 percent of his passes.
More importantly, Darnold was the leading catalyst for restoring order for the Men of Troy. That stunning 453 passing yards and five touchdowns performance he put on in the 103rd Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, only cemented Darnold’s growing stature among the USC faithful.
“What ultimate game maturity this young man has as a red-shirt freshman,” Helton said after the game. “I love the quiet confidence about him. You never saw his demeanor change tonight. Whether he was throwing a touchdown or whether we got stopped on offense, you just never saw his demeanor change. He was so glued in and so focused at the task at hand.”
What Darnold pulled off is the stuff of legends. But Darnold wouldn’t be as successful as he had been this season without the diversity of talented wideouts that have made his life a little bit easier. They’re fast. They’re strong.
And they’ve left a many of defenders gasping for air as the Trojans went about their business of re-establishing their tradition of being a football power. In watching the USC-Penn State matchup in the Rose Bowl Game, it appears the Nittany Lions may have missed this memo.
Like all season, junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was the affection of Penn State’s defense as the Nittany Lions seemed to work overtime to keep the talented wideout from dominating the game. And like they’ve done all season long, other USC perimeter playmakers made the Nittany Lions pay for that mistake.
Smith-Schuster came into the game as the Trojans’ leading receiver. He finished the Rose Bowl Game as such, catching 70 balls for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns. Against Penn State, Smith-Schuster made seven catches for 133 yards and a score. But make no mistake about it, the versatility of USC receivers run deeper than No. 9.
That is the reason why the Trojans managed to put up 52 points against a sturdy Penn State defense. That is one of the main reasons why USC went on a nine-game win streak to end the season with. When you have nine different receivers in double-digits in catches for the season as USC did, chances are you are going to burn through more than a handful of defenses.
Though Smith-Schuster became the Trojans’ dominant receiver, teams caught napping against players like Rogers, Deontay Burnett, Steven Mitchell Jr., and Daniel Imatorbhebhe, found themselves dealing with an offensive avalanche that couldn’t be stopped.
“It is a weapon that we have,” Mitchell said during the team’s Rose Bowl Game media day event. “Having that many weapons on the field at one time, you just can’t go at one specific guy. You have to worry about all of us. It’s good to have multiple weapons on the field.”
Penn State learned that lesson the hard way. The Nittany Lions played the whole game with the intent of not letting Smith-Schuster beat them. Meanwhile, they got burned by Burnett repeatedly. Burnett finished the Trojans’ 52-49 win with a game-high 13 catches for 164 yards and three touchdowns. Rogers chipped in with five receptions for 42 yards and a score.
Those three players accounted for 25 of the 33 completed passes that Darnold had on the day. It was those players who came down clutch when the Trojans needed them the most. Burnett opened the game hauling in a 26-yard scoring toss from Darnold. He closed out Penn State with a spectacular 27-yard touchdown catch in the endzone to enable USC to tie the game at 49-49, as time was winding down in the fourth quarter.
Actually, Burnett’s final touchdown looked like the same route he took in making his first connection with Darnold. In between Burnett’s beginning and closeout act, Smith-Schuster and Rogers managed to hit paydirt to keep the pressure on Penn State’s defense.
The variety of receivers touching the ball in the Rose Bowl Game is a good indicator the Trojans have come a long way from their poor start. Through the first four games of the season, there simply was no offensive cohesiveness. Darnold’s presence sparked a change in attitude and play. All of a sudden everything seemed to click.
“In the first four games, we were playing as individuals, a bunch of individuals, trying to make it out for themselves,” Smith-Schuster said. “But for us, I think, we came together as a family, and we made it fun.”