2017 Rose Bowl: Sam Darnold's quick maturation has Trojans back in Pasadena
CARSON, Calif. -- JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t take his eyes off the quarterback. It’s the fall of 2015 and the star USC receiver is on the sidelines during practice, watching the scout team offense scrap against the first string defense.
Smith-Schuster admittedly doesn’t know much about the blonde freshman kid under center, but he’s impressed.
“He would, like, dice our first defense,” Smith-Schuster said. “It was like, ‘Wow, this kid’s special.’”
The kid’s name was Sam Darnold, and now he’s leading the No. 9 Trojans into the Rose Bowl against a powerhouse No. 5 Penn State squad in a matchup of two of the nation’s hottest teams.
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Following a 31-27 loss to Utah on Sept. 23, a major turning point occurred for USC. The team held a players-only meeting to discuss the 1-3 start and how to turn it around. Darnold also held on to his position as the starting quarterback, after taking over for Max Browne.
Since then? The Trojans haven't lost since that late September night behind a robust offense, climbing up the polls in the process. Senior wideout Darreus Rogers remembers when Darnold was handed the keys to the offense.
“It felt a little different just having him in the huddle,” Rogers said of the redshirt freshman. “Just to see the determination in his eyes when you’re talking to him.”
Rogers, 23, is the oldest player on USC’s offense and noted how Darnold plays beyond his 19 years.
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) October 15, 2016
“I find myself counting on him a lot in the game,” Rogers said. “I forget that I’m the older dude. … Even though I’m like the big brother, he’s like the little big brother who’s mature and gets things right and organized.”
During their eight-game winning streak, the Trojans have averaged 38.4 points and 524 yards of offense with Darnold under center. But the Nittany Lions, powered by quarterback Trace McSorley (3,360 passing yards, 25 TDs, 5 INTs) and running back Saquon Barkley (1,302 rushing yards, 19 total TDs), feature an offense that posted 36.7 points per game this season. With Penn State riding its offense to a nine-game winning streak, Monday’s matchup in Pasadena figures to be a high-scoring affair.
“You just want to take advantage of every single time you have the ball,” Darnold said. “You don’t want to give them extra possessions, you don’t want to turn the ball over, because when you do that you get into trouble.”
When he looks across the line of scrimmage on Monday, Darnold will be facing a menacing Penn State front seven that loves to blitz and create havoc in the backfield. USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin said the Nittany Lions pose a handful of problems.
“Pressure. They do a great job of scheme to pressure offenses,” Martin said. “Then when they’re not scheming to pressure, they have great pass rushers. So we’re going to have to be efficient. We’re getting the ball out and protecting our quarterback.”
Darnold hasn’t done it all alone. The big fellas up front have been keeping him upright with a clean jersey. Led by All Pac-12 tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, the offensive line has given up just 0.9 sacks per game, the best mark in the conference and sixth-best nationally. Likewise, the offensive line has been responsible for paving the way for USC’s potent rush attack, led by Ronald Jones II (1,027 rush yards, 11 TDs) and Justin Davis (564 rushing yards, 2 TDs).
“It’s going to be an ultimate test for them this week,” Davis said of the offensive line. “I think they can handle it completely. It’s just going to be great to watch the battle between the defensive blitzing and the o-line.”