How Sam Darnold unexpectedly saved USC's season

LOS ANGELES -- At first, it was easy to forget why they were staring.

During his first year on campus at USC, Sam Darnold could walk around with his anonymity intact. He's 6-foot-4, so some people could have assumed he was an athlete, but he never got the awkward sense he was being watched.

Being named the starting quarterback and playing at a Heisman-caliber level almost immediately has a way of changing that.

“When I first got named the starter, people started looking at me differently, and I had the mindset of, like, ‘What are you looking at?’” Darnold said. “And I realized, ‘Oh yeah, I’m at USC. This is a huge football community.’ So I kind of got used to it as the weeks have gone on.”

There’s no going back now.

In the four games he has started for the Trojans since being elevated from the backup role on Sept. 19, Darnold, a redshirt freshman, has been among the best quarterbacks in the country. He has thrown for 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns with just one interception, and his 92.3 QBR, a stat that takes into account all facets of a quarterback’s play, ranks No. 2 in the FBS.

Darnold's play has been the biggest reason behind USC’s undefeated October, which has the Trojans (4-3, 3-2 Pac-12) back in the Pac-12 South race after they started the season 1-3 and 0-2 in the conference. They enter Thursday’s game against Cal (7:30 p.m. PT, ESPN/WatchESPN) at the Los Angeles Coliseum winners of their past three and one game behind Colorado and Utah in the division race.

“I definitely get a lot more texts and a lot more love now,” said Darnold, an Orange County native. “It’s not like I would hear from people to say, “Hey Sam, I heard you’re doing really well in school. Keep it up. Now there’s a bunch of people texting me, ‘Good game, saw you out there killing it,’ all that stuff.”

His newfound fame has led to a couple of small adjustments -- going back and getting rid of any potentially embarrassing Instagram posts, for one -- but, for the most part, Darnold has taken it all in stride.

That’s something his teammates appreciate.

“Sam has been the same since he heard he was starting,” senior receiver Darreus Rogers said. “What I like about him is he stayed grounded. He doesn’t get nervous. He doesn’t get overwhelmed with things. He’s a baller, man. He’s special.”

The most obvious example of how Rogers’ description has manifested in a game happened against Colorado on Oct. 8. Late in the second quarter, at the Buffaloes' 11-yard line, Darnold attempted to fake a handoff to running back Justin Davis but allowed the ball to pop free in the process.

For most quarterbacks, the correct play would have been simply to fall on it and live to see another down. Not Darnold. He said he thought about doing that, but his instinct was to try to pick it up and make something happen. He scooped it up at the 18-yard line and was chased back to the 35 before finding one of his roommates, tight end Tyler Petite, wide open near the line of scrimmage, in the general vicinity of where the play was originally supposed to go. Petite took it the rest of the way for what the box score shows as an 11-yard touchdown.

That play serves as one example of how stats, as good as they say Darnold is, can only do so much to explain how he has changed USC's offense over the past few weeks.

“When the bullets start flying, he really does a good job of responding,” quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton said. “He has that 'it' factor to him.”

Helton pointed to a third-down play in the first half against Arizona on Oct. 15 as another example. The play gave Darnold the option to run, almost like a draw, or pass, but the Wildcats blitzed and the routes didn’t have time to develop.

“He took off, broke two or three tackles and ran for a first down,” Helton said. “I haven’t seen too many guys who can break those tackles and keep running.”

That ability is what sets him apart for USC’s original starting quarterback, Max Browne. While Browne is comfortable in the pocket, his playmaking ability is limited when a play breaks down. Against Alabama and Stanford, two of Browne’s three starts, that was often. Browne was voted a team captain and had been loyal for years, but the staff finally decided it needed to take advantage of what Darnold could do.

It was a difficult decision in a tumultuous part of the season, but has proved to be the right call. In fact, Darnold has played so well that it’s easy to wonder how he didn’t win the job coming out of camp.

At this point, the only obvious flaw in his game is directly related to what has made him so good: ball security. Darnold lost three fumbles in his first three starts, but two of them came after runs of 13 and 17 yards, respectively, and on the longer one he came up just inches short of the end zone.

“I call him Incrediboy,” said Rogers, a reference to the character from the movie "The Incredibles." “He’s Incrediboy on the field, and off the field he looks like him.

"For me to get in a year to play with him is a great opportunity. In a couple years, he’ll probably be a top draft pick."