In a game filled with future NFL stars, USC quarterback Sam Darnold is almost certainly the biggest name. Widely expected to be a top-5 pick in the 2018 draft, Darnold has put up very impressive numbers in just shy of two full seasons as the Trojans’ quarterback.
Despite serving as a backup to start the 2016 season, Darnold passed for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns in USC’s Rose Bowl championship season, then added 3,787 more yards this fall. While his passing touchdown number dropped and his interception total rose, Darnold still finished the season strong.
Following the Trojans’ 30-27 loss at Washington State, the redshirt sophomore had nine passing touchdowns and eight interceptions. In their final seven games of the year, he threw 17 touchdowns and only four picks.
Urban Meyer sounded legitimately impressed with Darnold, and knows the Buckeyes can’t let him get rolling on Friday night.
“I see a streaky player, and I say that with a lot of respect,” Meyer said. “I see a young man that’s going to go down as one of the winningest quarterbacks in USC history and a guy that’s got a great release, great size, and enough athleticism to make you pay if you’re not secure in all the gaps.”
Darnold’s arm may have NFL scouts excited, but his legs can pose a threat, too. He rushed for two touchdowns against Washington State, and also had rushing scores in the Trojans’ last two regular season games. He won’t ever get confused with Braxton Miller in the open field, but has a Craig Krenzel-esque mobility. That allows him to elude some defenders and either gain yards on the ground, or buy more time for his receivers to get open.
“He’s elusive, deceptively athletic,” said sophomore DE Nick Bosa. “He can take off pretty well and get first downs, so we’re going to have to close the pocket on him.”
“We definitely need to get to him,” said OSU DE Sam Hubbard. “If we let him sit back there and throw wherever he wants, he’ll pick us apart because he’s so accurate and has such arm strength.”
The Buckeyes know they can’t let Darnold get off to a good start.
“Once he gets on, that’s the job of the defense not let him get on. The best pass defense is a pass rush,” said Meyer.
“Getting to him and affecting his game early and as often as we can will be a huge factor,” said Hubbard. “It’s always the most important battle in any game, offensive line versus defensive line, whoever dominates the line of scrimmage usually wins the game.”
While Darnold’s talent will present a major challenge for the Buckeyes, Hubbard said facing a player of his caliber can also be a positive.
“It’s a huge opportunity to go against someone that’s that highly regarded,” he said. “That’s especially exciting because it doesn’t happen that often. It’s something you’ll always remember.”