Column: Sam Darnold’s swan song in the Cotton Bowl was more of an ugly duckling

It was a typical farewell party for someone who should not be leaving, but has to be going.

Sam Darnold’s likely last game as a USC quarterback Friday night was awkwardly painful, consistently sloppy and not a bit sentimental.

With every mistake, Darnold showed everyone why, for football reasons, he needs to play another season at USC.

But every hard hit offered a loud reminder why, for financial reasons, he probably won’t play another minute.


Darnold was given every chance to pull the Trojans out of the muck that became Ohio State’s 24-7 victory in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. But by the time his final pass sailed nowhere, and to nobody, Darnold has become that muck.

In every big moment, he came up short, or long. In every big play, the ball slipped or soared.

He threw an interception that was returned for a Buckeyes touchdown. He lost a fumble that led to a Buckeyes touchdown. He lost another fumble that ended any comeback attempt.

The likely last game of his two-year collegiate career was arguably the worst game of his collegiate career, as he had three turnovers and no touchdown passes, while blowing a great defensive effort that held the mighty Buckeyes offense to 277 total yards.

The kid clearly isn’t ready. But the kid is also clearly not dumb.

If Darnold forgoes a third season at USC and enters the NFL draft, his potential has led him to be projected as a top-five pick, and you know what top-five picks can make by just showing up? Mitchell Trubisky, the quarterback who was the No. 2 overall pick this year by the Bears, received a $19.25 million signing bonus.

With that kind of money available, it’s hard to believe Darnold would play another down for free, especially if those downs involve him getting thrown around like Friday night.

In a game in which he was sacked eight times — two more than in his entire 10 starts last season — he also absorbed a cheap shot by the Buckeyes’ Malik Harrison, who was penalized for shoving him across the Trojans sideline after he had run out of bounds. Darnold doesn’t need to get caught in the middle of that kind of schoolyard violence when he can get paid for enduring professional violence.

Afterward, Darnold seemed stunned, walking into the interview room in full uniform and pads. He stared into space. He spoke with a glare. When asked about his future, which won’t need to be decided until the Jan. 15 declaration date, he didn’t seem ready to talk about it.

”Right now I think I’m really just focused on hanging out with my teammates for the next couple of days, really just saying bye to the seniors because they put together such a great season.’’ he said. “It’s tough. I’ll look at everything and make my decision after that.’’

It was a scene seeped in sadness, and vastly different from a year ago, when Darnold stood giddily amid swirling confetti on a Pasadena field after ending his first season by throwing for 453 yards and five TD passes in a Rose Bowl win against Penn State.

Darnold entered this season as a Heisman Trophy favorite, and yet ended it with moments of brilliance dulled by periods of inconsistency, his 22 personal turnovers more than the team turnover total for nearly half of the FBS’ 130 teams.

Sometimes he was great. Sometimes he was awful. There was a feeling that he was initially affected by the pressure of the hype. Early in the season he was certainly hurt by unfamiliarity with his receivers. He finished strong, with five consecutive wins, including a Pac-12 title game victory over Stanford, and in two years he has gone 20-4 as a starter.

But in the end, he just wasn’t polished enough. He played like somebody who only had two seasons of college football. He played like a 20-year-old kid who needs more time.

In the end, well, listen to his answer Friday when he was asked what happened.

“Turnovers,’’ Darnold said. “Whenever you turn the ball over that much, it’s hard to win games.’’

His first mistake occurred at the start of the second quarter when he totally missed the presence of the Buckeyes’ Damon Webb on an attempted slant pass to Deontay Burnett. Webb stepped right into the pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown.

“I made a bad read on the pick-six, I shouldn’t have thrown it obviously, he jumped inside the receiver right after ball was snapped and I didn’t see him. It was a bad play on my part,’’ Darnold said.

Later in the quarter, he was swarmed by Buckeyes rushers, stuck the ball in his right hand as if he was going to attempt to throw it out of the crowd, and immediately fumbled it away to the Buckeyes’ Jerome Baker, who returned it to near midfield to lead to another Ohio State score.

“Stripped fumbles in the pockets, those are tough,’’ Darnold said.

He was given another chance to turn the momentum on USC’s first drive of the second half, which began on the Trojans 42-yard line after USC stopped Ohio State on fourth down. But on the first play, Darnold completely missed a wide-open Burnett downfield, and the drive never got started.

On their next series, Darnold underthrew Steven Mitchell at the goal line. On their ensuing possession, Darnold overthrew Burnett in the end zone.

“I missed a couple of throws, too, that I’d like to have back that would have switched the momentum,’’ Darnold said.

Any chance of a Penn State-type comeback ended midway through the fourth quarter when, on the Buckeyes’ 12-yard line, Darnold again panicked in a crowd, failing to protect the ball as it was stripped out of his hand and recovered by the Buckeyes’ Robert Landers.

The ball was gone. The game was gone. And soon, Sam Darnold will probably be gone.

This is, then, farewell to a class act who personified the Trojan spirit.

Now go get paid.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke