Column: Has USC’s Sam Darnold surpassed UCLA’s Josh Rosen as city’s top QB?
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.
USC tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe pulls down a touchdown pass against Cal in the third quarter Thursday, Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC defenders Porter Gustin (45) and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (96) pressure Cal quarterback Davis Webb in the fourth quarter Thursday, Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC head coach Clay Helton directs his team against Cal in the fourth quarter Thursday, Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver Darreus Rogers makes a touchdown catch against California during the first quarter of a game on Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold loses his helmet after being brought down by Cal defenders Noah Westerfield, top, and Jordan Kunaszyk in the first quarter Thursday, Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold throws downfield against California during the second quarter of a game on Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Ronald Jones II loses a shoe on a run against California during the second quarter of a game on Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
The USC defense wraps up California running back Khalfani Muhammad during the second quarter of a game on Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver Deontay Burnett gets behind California safety Khari Vanderbilt but can’t hang on to the ball during the second quarter of a game on Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Ronald Jones II runs for a touchdown against California during the first quarter of a game on Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver Juju Smith-Schuster looks for room to run after making a catch in front of California cornerback Chibuzo Nwokocha during the first quarter of a game on Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
The USC Trojans take the field for the game against the California Golden Bears on Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A Trojans player takes to the field to warm up before a game against California on Oct. 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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.
“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.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez
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