The last time USC played a football game at the Dallas Cowboys’ home stadium, they suffered a humiliating 52-6 blowout loss to Alabama to open the 2016 season. That night, virtually nothing went right for the Trojans, who put up less than 200 yards of total offense.
But on a night when starting quarterback Max Browne completed less than half of his passes, the next USC quarterbacking legend stepped onto a college football field for the first time. Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold was far from impressive, going just 4-for-8 for 29 yards during garbage time, but it was the first glimmer of what was to come for the Trojans.
Friday night, Darnold will likely take his final collegiate snaps on that same field in the 2017 Cotton Bowl. A lot has changed in the 16 months since the Crimson Tide rolled all over USC.
Darnold spent two more weeks backing up Browne before taking over the starting job during a loss at Utah. The Trojans, whose record stood at 1-3 at that point, then ripped off nine straight wins to close the year. A season that started with Darnold watching from the bench as his team got ritually disemboweled by Alabama, ended with him setting a Rose Bowl record with 473 yards of total offense and tying another with five passing touchdowns.
“It’s been a crazy journey of kind of stepping in and no one knowing who I was and playing the Rose Bowl,” said Darnold.
Following that Rose Bowl, Darnold spent the next nine months as the target of an unrelenting hype machine. The Trojans were pushed as a College Football Playoff contender, ranked fourth in the preseason polls. Ten starts into his collegiate career, there was already talk about how high he would get picked in an NFL Draft that was more than a year away.
To Darnold, the sudden jump from anonymity to stardom may have seemed a little overwhelming, but USC head coach Clay Helton said his quarterback handled it well.
“I think any time that you’re in the realm of being a quarterback in Los Angeles, California, in that type of media market, being watched on a daily basis, and you handle it with the class and character that that young man has, I think, is beyond impressive,” said Helton.
A reporter asked Darnold if he would have preferred to play football without all the off-field attention.
“There’s certain things that as a player that you’d rather just not do,” Darnold said. “But, at the same time, it does give you a platform to be able to have a say in a matter that you might find near and dear to your heart.”
This is the point in most Hollywood scripts where the protagonist encounters some kind of trouble, and Darnold’s story was no exception. Considered one of the front-runners for the Heisman Trophy before the year kicked off, he quickly fell off that list with a sluggish start.
Following a Friday night loss at Washington State in late September, Darnold had nine passing touchdowns. But he had already thrown eight interceptions on the season, after turning it over just nine times in his entire redshirt freshman campaign.
“What’s wrong with Sam Darnold?” was a hot topic on screaming-head shows and social media. The answer, as it turned out, was nothing. Darnold finished the year throwing 17 touchdowns and just four picks in the Trojans’ last eight games. The aggressive mentality that was written off as “pressing” early in the season was now just a gunslinger finding a way to win. His sometimes-shaky mechanics turned into a mere byproduct of his brilliant improvisation.
“I’ve not really been much of a robot, which can hurt me sometimes mechanically,” said Darnold. “But I think being able to play and move off my instincts has been one of my strengths in terms of playing quarterback.”
When the Cotton Bowl ends, Darnold’s USC career will almost certainly come to a close as well. He maintained during pregame press conferences that he had not made any decision about his future, but is projected as a top-5 pick.
A reporter asked Darnold if he was worried that a high draft position could end up meaning that he gets picked by one of the “franchises that look hopeless.”
“I honestly don’t really look at it that way,” Darnold said. “For an organization to put their trust in me to be able to go out there and play football for them, I think any opportunity to play for anyone would be amazing and something that I’ve always dreamed of.”
While Darnold has the size and arm strength that NFL scouts dream of, Helton says his signal-caller is impressive in other ways as well.
“Quarterbacks are back there and they’re all measured by winning football games. And not only J.T. [Barrett] but Sam [Darnold], both these two kids, when they go out there, they’re just winners. They find ways to win for their team,” said Helton.
“Every time that Sam’s had that opportunity when it’s been the bright lights on the brightest stage, he’s accomplished it. So he’s one of those guys when you go through your career, you only get a few opportunities to coach a guy like that. We’ve been blessed to be able to coach Sam Darnold.”
(Header photo courtesy: Cotton Bowl)