USC Coach Clay Helton was assessing Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley in a team meeting Wednesday, searching for an apt description.
Helton has come to regard McSorley as a quick, confident decision maker with good vision and the ability to scamper when necessary. McSorley hasn't made many mistakes. He helped drive Penn State's transformation, from 2-2 through September to 11-2 heading into the Rose Bowl.
Helton knew an efficient way to communicate all of that to his defense. He told them McSorley reminded him a lot of Sam Darnold.
USC has gone through this first week of full bowl practices as if it were playing this weekend, even though more than two weeks remain before the Rose Bowl game Jan. 2. Often, coaches opt for shorter practices during bowl season, sometimes for health reasons — last season, USC did so to aid the recovery of a banged-up team that had just played in the Pac-12 title game. But shorter practices can also help keep attention spans from lagging weeks out from a game.
Helton called the longer bowl practices a success.
"I really feel like if we played this Saturday, we'd be ready to go," Helton said Thursday.
And Darnold's presence, in particular, helped simulate the game-week feel. When the first-team defense played the first-team offense, defenders could practice against a quarterback similar to the one from Penn State.
"It's one of the things that I addressed in our team meeting today about Trace, is he kind of reminds me of Sam because he has great pocket presence," Helton said Wednesday. "He doesn't have a telltale sign. Usually, each week we go in and we try to pinpoint exactly what a quarterback does. A lot of them will work lateral. Some of them try to spin out from the back side. And you just know the Blue Book on them. With this one, just like Sam, it's hard to get a tell on them because they are able to react to what's going on."
Opposing defenses would agree. In nine starts, Darnold has completed 68% of his passes for 2,633 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
McSorley's numbers through 13 starts: a 57.5% completion rate for 3,360 yards, 25 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has had just two passes intercepted since September.
"They both have good vision and keep their eyes downfield, so that's a very important thing for a quarterback," defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. "Especially for a guy that likes to move around in the pocket, and both of those guys do that well."
Both quarterbacks have received quiet credit for reviving lifeless seasons. Darnold did not make an All-Pac-12 team, though he outplayed nearly every opposing quarterback he faced in the conference season.
McSorley was named a second-team All-Big Ten Conference selection, though a local columnist later opined that he deserved to be the league's most valuable player and in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
McSorley led Penn State's 21-point comeback against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game by dissecting the Badgers' secondary in the second half. At other times, he has been a dangerous runner — he is Penn State's second-leading rusher.
USC thinks it's already prepared for that.
"Sam's a lot faster," linebacker Quinton Powell said. "Other than that, I think that they're quite similar. So it's good that we go against him in practice."
Offensive tackle Zach Banner held back tears when recounting his decision last season to return to USC as a senior instead of entering last April's NFL draft.
He said his season, including his selection to the College Sports Madness All-American team, vindicated his decision.
"I think that I proved I'm a dominant player," Banner said. "I think that — I'm starting to tear up. I think I showed everybody that said I shouldn't be here, said I shouldn't get what — I'm going on the All-American wall. I'm gonna be on there forever. So if anybody wants anything to say, they can go talk to the wall."
Many USC players' prayers were answered when the Trojans were selected to the Rose Bowl — some more literally than others. "I was excited," defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu said of learning of USC's selection. "I couldn't get too excited. I was in church." … Defensive back Keyshawn Young, who has been in concussion protocol, has been cleared to have some physical activity but hasn't returned fully to practice.