This Saturday, USC will take on Stanford in a primetime matchup of two of the Pac 12’s most storied programs. Entering the third game of the season, USC’s quarterback situation is still not fully resolved. Max Browne remains the primary starter, but Sam Darnold has earned significant playing time against Alabama and Utah State. Not only has Darnold been effective in his time on the field, but his unique skill set may be very useful against Stanford.
Coming into the season, the Trojan offensive line was expected to be one of the best in the country. Unfortunately, Neil Callaway’s crew has come up way short of expectations. The line was embarrassed against Alabama in week one, and though there were some improvements against Utah State, the Aggies were still able to make nine tackles for loss. For a Utah State team that had just made eight against FCS opponent Weber State the week prior, surrendering nine tackles for loss is an extremely poor result for USC’s talented offensive line.
Against Stanford, the Trojans will be facing a front seven that will be similar to that of Alabama. Stanford made ten tackles for loss against Kansas State in week one, and unless there are extraordinary strides made in practice this week, reaching double digits is a realistic expectation against SC. While these statistics effect the running game, USC’s pass blocking has not been much better.
Browne was constantly under pressure against Alabama and with Chuma Edoga’s status uncertain for the Stanford game, the Trojans may have to rely on Chad Wheeler at left tackle who is still not 100% healthy. This could cause huge problems for a pocket passing quarterback like Browne that needs time to pick apart opposing defenses. As all Trojan fans repeatedly saw in week one, Browne is not good in the face of pressure. Against a Stanford team that will probably be getting into the backfield with regularity, this could spell trouble for the USC offense.
Luckily for the Trojans, Sam Darnold is virtually the complete opposite of Browne. Darnold is very mobile and at 6’4” 225 lbs., he is a force in the running game. Browne is a better game manager, but Darnold’s athleticism could come in handy against the Farm. USC’s offense was inept against Alabama and fans could be seeing a repeat of that on Saturday if Browne is the primary quarterback.
Darnold’s ability to scramble and change plays with his feet adds a totally different dimension for the Stanford defense to scheme against. If the pocket collapses from the outside, Darnold can step up in the pocket and run into the space left vacated by the defensive ends coming around the edge. Conversely, if there is a strong inside rush, Darnold can scramble to the outside where he is a sure bet to out run a defensive end trying to set the edge. As a result, Stanford would likely need to use a linebacker as a “spy” whose sole responsibility is to watch the quarterback and prevent Darnold from picking up yardage on the scramble.
Deploying a quarterback spy may prevent Darnold from using his feet, but it takes a man out of coverage that can lead to additional space in the secondary. Plus, the defensive lineman will have to be aware of their assignments when rushing the quarterback or else they could leave Darnold with space to run. This extra threat can help divert some of Stanford’s focus off rushing the passer and instead into simply keeping to an assignment so as to prevent Darnold from improvising.
Clay Helton has publicly expressed that he plans to use Darnold throughout the season, but so far he has restricted his targeted usage to only red zone situations. In an ideal world this is a perfect plan, but Helton’s offensive line is simply not good enough to accommodate a pocket passing quarterback. Browne is a good quarterback with a huge arm, but his mobility has limited his effectiveness. If USC’s offensive line was playing at the level many expected coming into 2016, Browne would be excelling and Darnold would not be needed. Unfortunately, the line has performed well below expectations and Browne’s weaknesses have been made obvious as a result.
USC enters Saturday with the daunting task of beating a Stanford squad that appears to be a better football team. The Trojans are going to need an excellent performance if they want to come out victorious, but expecting the offensive line to reach the levels expected of them a month ago may be overly optimistic. Browne can still be effective in certain situations to keep the Stanford defense on its toes, but Darnold’s skill set adds a totally different dimension to the offense that Browne cannot match. If Helton decides to stick with Browne for a vast majority of the game, Trojan fans may be stuck seeing a repeat of week one where Browne was constantly under pressure and the offense could not sustain a drive. Therefore, using Darnold and letting the redshirt freshman use his athleticism would be the best way to minimize the effects of a weak offensive line.