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UCLA Coach Jim Mora on USC quarterback Sam Darnold: ‘He gave us fits’

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USC quarterback Sam Darnold gets a pass off against UCLA in the second quarter at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Before USC was comfortably coasting past UCLA, when the game was in the balance and the Rose Bowl crowd was still hanging onto every play, Sam Darnold showed why Saturday night was going to be a long one for the Bruins’ defense.

Facing third and nine and with the pocket quickly collapsing, Darnold ducked under UCLA’s Eli Ankou and what would have been a momentum-shifting sack. USC’s redshirt freshman quarterback then skipped a few steps to his left, squared his shoulders to the sideline while on the move and threw a dart to Deontay Burnett for 12 yards. 

The UCLA fans had started to cheer for Ankou’s sack when it looked like Darnold was going to the grass. Then they, like the Bruins’ defense would be time and again in the No. 13 Trojans’ (8-3, 7-2 in Pac-12 play) 36-14 win, were left despondent. UCLA (4-7, 2-6) slipped into the depths of bowl contention with the loss, and Darnold’s precocious playmaking ability was a big reason why. 

Darnold finished 25 for 36 with 267 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed for 27 yards and led the Trojans to convert 12 third downs on 21 attempts. 

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“I watched him on film obviously, I’ve seen him on TV, had a lot of respect for him coming into this game, but when you see him in person he’s a truly special one,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said after the game. “I’ll tell you, he reminds me of a younger Tony Romo. He’s bigger, but that type of ability and he’s smart and he’s poised and confident.”

Down a wide hallway and around the corner, a member of USC’s coaching staff was giving Darnold another play-a-like. Tyson Helton, the Trojans’ quarterbacks coach and the younger brother of head Coach Clay Helton, likened his signal caller to 2016 NFL Hall of Fame inductee Brett Favre. 

The common thread between those two quarterbacks is an ability to make something out of nothing. Darnold certainly showed that skill on Saturday, and also flashed the sort of gun-slinging mentality that made Favre the NFL’s all-time leader in interceptions thrown. 

But there was more good than bad against UCLA, and it mostly came with Darnold scrambling out of the pocket and making throws on the run. 

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“I don’t know what it was, but it seemed like we were one step behind him on the pass rush, one step behind him on a couple plays,” Bruins defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. “He just got ahead of us, and then we started to try to catch up a couple of times and we were just one behind him most of the day.”

The Bruins’ pass rush, led by Takkarist McKinley off the edge and bolstered by some speedy linebackers, has been one of their only reliable strengths this season. The goal was to keep Darnold from escaping the pocket, and Bradley hammered that into his unit after the quarterback skipped through a handful of blitzes in the first two quarters. 

The message never clicked. Darnold sprayed the ball to 11 different receivers and hit De’Quan Hampton for his first two touchdowns with the Trojans. 

“He scrambles a lot. Once he scrambles he’s able to make plays,” McKinley, who was held to no sacks, said of Darnold. “Our game plan was keep him in the pocket, collapse the pocket, but obviously we failed at it.”

While singing Darnold’s praises, Mora pointed out that UCLA has done well against dual-threat quarterbacks this season. 

But that was against Brigham Young’s Taysom Hill, UNLV’s Johnny Stanton and Arizona’s Brandon Dawkins. Darnold, Mora said, is more mobile. He can keep his eyes downfield while sidestepping a pass rusher. He, most importantly, can pinpoint his passes while on the run. 

As a result, UCLA learned what a handful of Pac-12 teams already knew.

“Sam Darnold, he’s a heck of a player,” Mora said. “He gave us fits.”

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jesse.dougherty@latimes.com

Twitter: @dougherty_jesse


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