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Column: Has USC’s Sam Darnold surpassed UCLA’s Josh Rosen as city’s top QB?

USC's Sam Darnold carries the ball on a quarterback keeper in the first quarter of a game against California on Thursday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Who do you have?

Hillary or Donald?

Jordan or LeBron?

Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen?

The last of those questions would have sounded preposterous only a handful of weeks ago, when Rosen was the city’s undisputed king of college football.

That has changed, and not only because Rosen and UCLA are stumbling through an underwhelming season.

Darnold has been electrifying since taking over as USC’s starting quarterback, his strong arm, lively feet and fearless disposition jolting a once-downtrodden team back into contention in the Pac-12. And after extending the Trojans’ winning streak to four games Thursday night with a 45-24 demolition of Cal, a legitimate case could be made that he is now the best college quarterback in town.

“I don’t pay attention to that kind of stuff,” Darnold said. “I guess it’s good media attention.”

He better get used to it. This is a talking point that will continue to develop beyond this season, perhaps even beyond the season after that.

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The comparisons to Rosen are inevitable, starting with the fact they play for rival universities in the same city.

They are both 6-foot-4. They were both local high school stars, Darnold at San Clemente High and Rosen at St. John Bosco. They are both in their second years of college, USC’s dual-threat quarterback a redshirt freshman and UCLA’s classic pocket passer a true sophomore.

But whereas Rosen has been viewed as a potential first-round draft pick since last year, Darnold didn’t replace Max Browne as USC’s starter until the fourth week of this season.

Still, Darnold has passed for 18 touchdowns, including five in the win over Cal at Coliseum. He has thrown only three interceptions.

Rosen, who has missed UCLA’s last two games with a shoulder injury, has 10 touchdown passes and five interceptions.

Darnold has completed 67.4% of his passes, compared to 59.3% for Rosen.

Cal Coach Sonny Dykes said of Darnold, “He’s a big kid. He has a good arm. He’s got good mobility for somebody his size. I think he’s improved every week and that’s what you want to see young quarterbacks do.”

Now, it should be noted that Darnold plays on an obviously superior team. The Bruins can’t run the football, they can’t catch the football and they can’t block, which explains why Rosen last played on Oct. 8. And while Rosen has taken the majority of his snaps under center in UCLA’s pro-style offense, Darnold has mostly operated out of the shotgun.

Darnold acknowledged he was the beneficiary of USC’s dominant ground attack Thursday, when the Trojans rushed for a season-high 398 yards. He pointed in particular to his final touchdown pass, a 17-yard strike to tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe.

“Their safeties were playing low in that second half, the whole game, really, after we ran the ball a lot,” Darnold said.

Darnold completed 18 of 25 passes for 231 yards against the Bears. He continued to demonstrate an ability to salvage plays that have broken down. Clearly, playing in front of a national television audience on ESPN didn’t unnerve him.

“It’s the game I’ve been playing since third grade,” Darnold said. “I don’t think any stage is really, like, too big for me.”

If anything, he is looking more and more comfortable with every game he starts, regardless of the opponent.

“I’m used to all the pressures now,” he said. “I’m used to a lot of the coverages that different defenses bring.”

With only five starts to his name, Darnold still isn’t close to a completed product. He showed some signs of inexperience Thursday, such as when he lost a couple of fumbles. He also threw an interception in the fourth quarter, when he failed to see safety Luke Rubenzer and carelessly floated the football down the left sideline.

“Dumb play,” Darnold said.

That ability to reflect on and own mistakes are the reason USC Coach Clay Helton is particularly optimistic about Darnold’s future.

“It wasn’t perfect tonight,” Helton said. “The beautiful thing is he knows it. His humbleness and humility is staggering to me, to be honest with you. He works to be a perfectionist.”

As much as Helton has praised Darnold, he declined to compare his quarterback to the one on the other side of town.

“That’s not for me to judge,” Helton said.

Which is fine. We have another season and a half, maybe more, to figure it out.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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