Oregon tries mind games to slow Sam Darnold, and Washington may follow

USC quarterback Sam Darnold scrambles away from Oregon linebacker Troy Dye during the first quarter on Nov. 5.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The timing could have been better.

On one of USC’s first offensive plays against Oregon on Saturday, quarterback Sam Darnold diagnosed a screen to a receiver that was sniffed out, and he took off running the other way.

ESPN’s color analyst, Todd Blackledge, took the opportunity to rave about the decisiveness of Darnold and his counterpart on the Ducks, Justin Herbert.

“For as young as they are, the poise and the quickness of their decision making is outstanding,” Blackledge said.

He had hardly finished speaking when Darnold took the next snap, surveyed the field and cocked his arm, ready to release the ball on another of the quick reads that have made him USC’s offensive engine. Then he held up, managing a pump fake. He shifted his body slightly, perked up upon seeing receiver Deontay Burnett on a crossing pattern and fired there instead — an accurate pass, though Burnett dropped it.


The rest of Darnold’s afternoon and evening progressed similarly: slight hesitations, lengthier lingering in the pocket and passes to his secondary options. Sometimes, he said, he dropped back to pass and discovered there was a defender in a spot he wasn’t expecting.

“They definitely got me a little bit in terms of messing with my head,” Darnold said. “And that’s a part of the growth, I think, too, is being able to see things happen before they happen. I think I’ve got to do a better job in the film room in that way.”

Breaking down USC’s 45-20 victory over Oregon, plus looking ahead to the Trojans’ game next Saturday against Washington. For the record: Washington led California 21-20 in the second quarter at time of taping. 

Oregon disguised coverages and rotated often, from one safety, to cover-two, to three defenders deep, “trying to confuse a young quarterback,” USC Coach Clay Helton said during a teleconference with reporters on Sunday.

It worked — to a point. USC did adapt. The Ducks often left the middle of the field vacated, and Darnold exploited it by feeding Burnett, the slot receiver, and his tight ends. And Darnold still enjoyed a healthy stat line: he completed 28 of 40 passes for 309 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

His margin for error will shrink against Washington. The Huskies are fifth in the nation in fewest yards allowed per passing attempt, at 5.6. And Oregon’s strategy of constantly shifting coverages might give Washington a blueprint.

Darnold said he’d begin studying tape earlier than usual this week, beginning Sunday. Then he launched into an analysis sounding like someone who’d already begun preparing.

“They bring a lot of different things, a lot of different coverages, they switch things up,” Darnold said of the Huskies. “They’ve given quarterbacks trouble with that kind of stuff. I’m gonna look at them a little bit earlier. But I’m going to go into film and go into practice with the same mind-set I’ve been having.”

Flags fly again

Helton appeared upset with the officiating in the fourth quarter Saturday, but he declined to go into specifics Sunday.

“It’s kind of like being a batter and you’ve got an umpire that’s got a wide strike zone or a tight strike zone,” Helton said.

That zone, apparently, has been wide for two games in a row. USC followed its 13-penalty game last week with another one Saturday, costing the Trojans 129 yards.

They committed at least one of almost everything. Four holding calls. One offside. One illegal motion. One facemask. An illegal block in the back. Pass interference — offensive and defensive. There were flags for hands to the face, 12 men on the field and an ineligible player downfield.

A final defensive holding call was declined.

Helton said he would emphasize adjustments in blocking fundamentals and technique this week.

Asked if USC could win with 13 penalties against Washington, Helton was blunt.

“No sir,” he said. “We can’t.”

Davis to return

Running back Justin Davis has been cleared to resume practicing after missing three games with a high ankle sprain.

“He should be returning back to practice with us this Tuesday, and we’ll see how that ankle is holding up,” Helton said.

Quick hits

Defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu underwent an MRI exam that revealed a sprained ligament in his knee from a prior injury. “We’ll give that thing some rest and see how that goes throughout the week, but no significant damage to any other ligaments,” Helton said. “That’s great news.” … Running back Aca’Cedric Ware (ankle sprain) had not been cleared to practice by Sunday. … Safety Marvell Tell injured his hip Saturday but isn’t expected to miss time. … Linebacker John Houston Jr. hyperextended his knee Saturday but remained in the game. … Burnett, who led USC in receptions and yards Saturday, played through a knee sprain and a dislocated thumb suffered during the game. … ESPN’s “College GameDay” will broadcast from near Husky Stadium in Seattle next weekend. It will be the first time USC has played in a game visited by “GameDay” since 2013, when the Trojans defeated No. 5 Stanford at the Coliseum.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand