PASADENA-Sam Darnold plays lights out in the USC Trojans 52-49 Rose Bowl victory over the Penn State Nittany Lions.
This headline (and those similar to it) flooded all major sports media outlets just days into the new year. A stellar performance from Darnold to cap off a phenomenal freshman season. On what was so far the biggest stage of his young career (which seems bound to change), Darnold delivered, completing 33 of 53 passing attempts (62.3 percent) for 453 yards and five touchdowns. These numbers alone jump off the page (or I guess from your screen), clearly displaying just how effective his play was. Although, taking a closer look, we manage to see all the little things he does right that make him (if it’s even possible) that much better.
Dual Threat (eh, kinda)
While Sam Darnold won’t wow anyone with his 40 yard dash, his elusiveness and quickness are underrated in his success. With his ability to avoid rushers and escape the pocket, all plays are extended giving receivers ample time to improvise a new route, causing the opposing defenses and their coaches migraines.
Watch here as he keeps his feet moving, avoids pressure, and still has the presence of mind to pick apart a well designed defensive play to find a wide open JuJu Smith-Schuster on the run.
The poise to evade a pass rush while keeping their eyes downfield is a vital skill needed to be a successful quarterback. However, many of all collegiate quarterbacks, let alone freshman, struggle to fully possess this attribute. This is where Darnold’s maturity comes into play. While he his only a freshman, Darnold has the look of poise and experience of a fifth year senior. This ability could really come in handy if the new offensive line struggles early.
Another prime example is here, Darnold steps up in the pocket, looks to take off up the middle which forces the freezing of the two ILB’s in zone, giving him space to fire a strike over the middle just in time to hit Burnett for the touchdown.
And again here.
Below is a perfect example as to why Darnold frustrates defenses. This play should be either 2nd and 10 (from a throwaway/incompletion) 2nd and 15 (from sack) or 1st and 10 going the other way (INT), however Darnold’s footwork and lateral quickness is just enough to divert three defenders for a solid six yard gain creating something out of nothing.
Pass Rush (or lack thereof)
While Penn State’s defensive front finished 19th in the country last year for sacks per game (2.86), they managed only one against Sam Darnold and the Trojan offense. The Nittany Lions sent a variety of looks for the Trojans during the game, featuring 4-3, Nickel, and Dime defensive packages with rushes including 3, 4, 5, and 6 men. Of the 58 total pass-designed plays called for the Trojan offense, 32 of them (55.2 percent) featured a pass rush of four or less men. During these plays Darnold completed 20 of 27 passes (74 percent) and threw for over 245 (54.1 percent of total passing) yards and four (of his five) touchdowns, while rushing five times for 19 yards.
Too many times during the game (from Penn State’s perspective), Darnold stood in a clean pocket with minimal pressure, allowing him time to breakdown coverage, go through his progressions, and find a receiver with ease. Here are a couple examples.
While it seems painfully obvious to point out accuracy as an importance in quarterback play, it can never be overvalued. And it can only be truly appreciated until your quarterback has consistently lacked it. Let’s take a look at these perfect dimes from Darnold.
Ball placed only where Rogers can catch it (in tight coverage I might add) making a difficult play look simple.
Okay this one is just unfair. Man in his face and off his backfoot, he manages to drop a perfect throw right into JuJu’s bread basket. (Side note: Credit to both Rogers and Smith-Schuster for incredible catches)
Ice Cold Veins (ice, ice baby)
After the Trojans built a 27-14 point lead midway through the second quarter, Penn State responded for 21 straight points to go ahead 35-27 with 11:27 left to play in the third quarter. Just two plays later Darnold took the field and was intercepted off this slant route. (Side Note: Not a terrible play, just great read and anticipation from PSU corner)
State then went on to take a commanding 42-27 lead. At that point Darnold had every valid excuse to fold it in: freshman, big bowl game, 28 straight points, interception, double digit point deficit. However, Darnold went on to play lights out completing 15 of 18 passes for 180 yards and 2 clutch touchdowns over just a quarter and a half.
Darnold finished the fourth quarter a perfect 10 for 10 throwing for 135 yards including this pivotal touchdown.
This last play features almost every note from this article. Not only do you see his crunch time play making ability, but also the lack of pressure from a three man rush, and his accuracy to throw it on a rope just over the the linebackers head and in between two deep safeties in an eight man drop zone. Notice the correlation between his first (second clip in article^) and last TD, Penn State makes the adjustment and rushes three instead of four and puts a third linebacker deep to take away that throw, yet Darnold still beats them.
And now, to end this article the right way.
Props to you Darnold.