Sam Darnold’s Week 1 performance against Western Michigan earned plenty of criticism, externally and internally, but it was not as bad as it seemed.
If all you saw of Sam Darnold’s season opener performance against Western Michigan was the sports world’s reaction to it, you might think the Trojan quarterback had the worst performance of his career.
To be fair, Darnold himself thought that too. USC’s Heisman Trophy candidate, who threw two interceptions, said it was the worst he’s felt coming out of a game since high school.
With time and distance comes clarity, and as it turns out, it really wasn’t that bad.
“I felt worse than I actually played honestly,” Darnold said Tuesday, after having the chance to review the film.
“I felt worse than I actually played honestly.”
A closer look at Darnold’s performance reveals the truth of it.
Was the Trojan quarterback perfect? Far from it, but his stat line of 289 yards, two interceptions and zero passing touchdowns is a harsh reflection of his actual play.
Darnold didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he ran for one from 11 yards out while USC’s running backs found the end zone five times.
He threw two interceptions, but both were off of deflections. The first was a bad decision to throw into a crowd and Darnold paid for it. But the second was partly his receiver failing to make a play on a catchable ball and partly miraculous tip-toed sideline tight rope work by a WMU cornerback.
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He also completed 69 percent of his passes despite four of his 10 incompletions being attributed to receiver drops.
Those drops were a major storyline in the first half, when Darnold’s passer rating was 98.22. In the second half, he bounced back by completing 12-of-14 passes for 174 yards. He posted a passer rating of 175.82, an efficiency right in line with his 2016 numbers.
The strong finish wasn’t enough to wipe away the bad taste the first half left in his mouth. By Tuesday, that taste faded somewhat.
“It was good to look at the film and I actually came out of it really positive,” he said.
Darnold pointed out the Western Michigan game was actually his first real season opener as a starter. It was a learning opportunity for him, managing excitement coming out of the offseason while accepting some rustiness.
“I think my emotions got the best of me there in the beginning,” he said.
Ultimately, USC’s coaches don’t mind Darnold’s initial dissatisfaction with his Week 1 showing.
“If there is one person that’s always harder on himself than anyone, it’s Sam Darnold,” head coach Clay Helton said. “That’s one of the reasons I love him.”
“I like that he feels that way,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “I like the fact that he wants to do better and have an attitude to go back and get better and play better.”
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Helton was pleased his quarterback did what he was asked to do: spread the ball around without locking onto one target.
Martin said that while there were some throws Darnold would want back, he played well overall.
But the sports world expects more of the player pegged as a potential No. 1 overall draft pick and Heisman favorite. Hence the “Darnold struggled” narrative.
Accurate or not, it’s a narrative the redshirt sophomore aims to rewrite.
“I think I’m going to play a lot better through the course of the season,” Darnold said.
A marquee matchup with No. 14 Stanford, a team he didn’t get to start against last season, seems like a good place to start.