Standing on the sideline watching Texas drive down the field, seeing the Longhorns squeeze out the clock, Sam Darnold watched the seconds tick down and hoped.
It may seem that the USC quarterback can mount a late drive with any amount of time left, but he cannot, he said, standing outside the Trojans’ locker room after a 27-24 double-overtime victory over Texas on Saturday night.
“As long as they don’t get it below, like, 20 seconds, I think we’re very comfortable that we can go down there and score,” Darnold said.
Darnold led USC 52 yards down the field in less than 40 seconds for the field goal that sent the game into overtime. He did not have a Heisman Trophy-worthy box score: 28 of 49 for 397 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He did not get much help from his receivers, who committed a slew of drops, including one that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
But Darnold did have a play that will be a staple in his Heisman highlight reel. On the final drive of regulation, he hopscotched past a diving rusher, jumped and threw a strike to running back Stephen Carr.
A day later, after digesting the drive, coach Clay Helton said he wasn’t sure if any other quarterback he has been around could’ve led USC back.
“He provides one thing to your team that I think is critical no matter how adverse the situation is,” Helton said of Darnold. “And that’s hope.”
“You can’t explain it,” safety Chris Hawkins said.
Darnold was asked the same question this summer, during a day spent at his house. His answer was more matter-of-fact.
“We do the same thing every single day,” Darnold said. “And that same thing that we do every single day is what we do every single game day, too. It’s not different. You’re just in front of more people. That’s really it. And you’re playing a different team other than yourselves. When you think about it like that, I don’t think you can be nervous. It’s really hard to be.”
Darnold later insisted that he does feel anxiety. The difference, though, is that Darnold usually gets uneasy before the game. Then it recedes.
And so it was against Texas. “From the start, to be honest, I was pretty nervous,” he said. By the end of regulation, though, “I was just, honestly, super calm in that moment.”
Football requires precision, timing and many players performing specific roles. At the end of games, particularly in college, order can dissolve into chaos.
Darnold’s relative calm allows him to exploit the breakdowns. On the throw to Carr, the defender left his feet too hastily, so Darnold sidestepped him. The defensive line clogged the passing lane, so he jumped and made his own.
“When things are at its worst, he’s at his best,” Tyson Helton said. For example, he continued, down 15 points in the Rose Bowl, USC fed off Darnold’s calm. “He doesn’t have to talk to you. Just like Brett. Brett could just look at you, and that look said 1,000 words.”
Defense is depleted
Saturday’s game took a heavy toll on USC’s defense, which sustained injuries to five regular players in addition to two who missed the game entirely.
Linebacker Porter Gustin and defensive end Rasheem Green left the game and did not return. Green was diagnosed with a high-ankle sprain and is listed as day-to-day, Helton said. Gustin, who had two screws surgically inserted into his right foot on Wednesday, had a screw come loose, and he also aggravated a strain in his right biceps and shoulder.
Neither of Gustin’s injuries will require surgery, but his status against California on Saturday is uncertain.
“He’s 50-50 at best for this game,” Helton said. “We’ll take it day to day, but it could be an extensive period of time. We’ll see.”
Several other defenders suffered injuries that did not force them from the game but could continue to nag. Defensive back Ajene Harris hyperextended a knee, linebacker Uchenna Nwosu hyperextended an elbow and sprained the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in one of his knees, and linebacker Cameron Smith dislocated a finger, which caused him to miss a few snaps.
Linebacker John Houston Jr. (neck injury) and defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu (knee sprain) did not play.
Right tackle Chuma Edoga was pulled from the game after aggravating a wrist sprain he sustained a week prior against Stanford.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand