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USC Sports

Darnold, good enough to win in USC opener, needs to be at best against Stanford

USC
USC quarterback Sam Darnold throws a pass against Western Michigan on Saturday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It took most of a morning and part of an afternoon of pondering, but Sam Darnold’s parents finally remembered the one time as a high school quarterback when their son struggled during a game.

It was Darnold’s senior season. San Clemente lost to Tesoro 59-38. Darnold completed 15 of 24 passes with two touchdowns and one interception, but he lost two fumbles.

He also had bronchitis, on its way to becoming pneumonia.

So Darnold was physically ill the last time he felt as frustrated about a performance as he did immediately after USC’s win over Western Michigan last weekend. He called the start “definitely my worst in college.”

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In last week’s opener, he had two passes intercepted and didn’t throw for any touchdowns. Now, with No. 6 USC set to face No. 14 Stanford on Saturday at the Coliseum, the key question is how Darnold will bounce back from a subpar performance.

Darnold said he’d never felt worse about a start than he did last Saturday. But by the time he walked out of the Coliseum with coach Clay Helton about two hours after the game, his outlook had improved. He spent time with his family that evening before retreating to watch the game film. He surprised himself. He wasn’t great, but the game was “a little bit better” than he thought, he said.

“I thought we didn’t do too horribly,” Darnold said of the passing game. “I mean, I felt worse than I actually played, honestly. It was good to look at the film. I actually came out of it really positive.”

Helton stumped for Darnold’s performance for much of the week. The coach noted that Darnold completed 70% of his passes, despite several drops by his receivers. His interceptions came on tipped balls. USC’s running game, which scored on four runs of 10 yards or more, didn’t give Darnold much of a chance to throw for a score.

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“The thing I love about Sam Darnold is he’s always so hard on himself,” Helton said. “That’s what you appreciate as a coach. He’s always one that is a perfectionist that wants to do better.”

Offensive coordinator Tee Martin said he likes that Darnold felt frustrated, but “the things he did out there weren’t real bad. We want to take away about two or three plays, maybe a couple throws here and there.”

Yet Darnold was clearly off from his peak. His decision-making wasn’t a significant issue, but his accuracy was. He missed several targets that he usually hits.

Darnold also is graded on a different scale this season. A year ago, defenses didn’t know him well. They couldn’t tailor schemes to zap his strengths. And he had a star receiver. The expectations, certainly in the early stages of last season, were not nearly as great.

Now, he disappoints if he doesn’t play like the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft pick. When Darnold’s parents returned to San Clemente on Saturday, they turned to ESPN. The first thing they heard was a SportsCenter anchor wondering: Who was the guy borrowing the No. 14 jersey, and what had he done with Darnold?

That is the new reality for the player who entered the season as the most-hyped in college football.

“First game of the season, there was a lot of excitement behind the game, and we had a long camp, so I was just really excited to play someone else and get out there and realized … I mean it was still awesome to get out there,” Darnold said, “but it was just another game, you know? And I think my emotions kind of got the best of me there in the beginning.”

Few people understand Darnold’s new existence better than Matt Leinart, USC’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who also had to contend with huge expectations. He said if he could offer Darnold one piece of advice it would be to ignore every statistic except one.

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“All he has to do is win,” Leinart said. “All he has to do is lead his football team. And the stats and all that stuff, that’ll come. So actually I think this last week was great for him because I think it kind of got the jitters out of the way. I think it kind of got the nervousness out of the way of having to be great every week.

“He doesn’t have to be great every week. He’s gotta be good enough to win.”

No team has given USC more trouble in that all-important statistic than Stanford, which has three consecutive wins over USC and has won seven of the last nine in the series.

The Cardinal trounced Rice two weeks ago 62-7 in a game played in Australia. Stanford boasts a powerful running game, as usual, and an improved passing attack, with returning starter Keller Chryst. Its defense has one of the best secondaries in college football.

USC averaged 6.8 yards per rush in the opener, and the Trojans’ coaching staff thinks the team can run against anyone. “It’ll be pretty scary what we can do as an offense” if Darnold plays like he can, Martin said

Will he? The past provides one data point.

The game after Darnold’s loss to Tesoro, he turned in a passable performance: 14 for 23, one touchdown and one interception against Capistrano Valley.

It came in a 27-point win.

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zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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