The biggest offseason story line in Southern California was an unfamiliar one: Who was going to play quarterback for the USC Trojans?
It had been a while since the Men of Troy were uncertain as to who would be under center.
Cody Kessler had held the position for the previous three years, and Matt Barkley the four years before him. There was competition, but really only for the sake of competition. There were no legitimate position battles until this summer, when newly minted head coach Clay Helton had to choose between Max Browne, a 6-foot-5 junior who has already graduated, and Sam Darnold, a redshirt freshman with loads of talent and exactly zero experience.
The decision, it seemed, really wasn’t much of a decision, like choosing to drive to work in a Maserati or a Ferrari – are you really going to complain about that? Browne, the No. 2-ranked pocket passer for the class of 2013, owned every tangible skill one could ask for. Darnold was receiving NFL hype before taking a single college snap.
The decision to go with Browne as the starter, however, didn’t work. This is the case even though it’s tough to blame an inexperienced quarterback making his debut against Alabama and his follow-up against Stanford, typically two of the best defenses in the country.
Browne encountered a baptism by fire, getting walloped by both Alabama and the Cardinal, managing just 16 points in the process.
“Usually, if you’re not playing the best player, you’re losing games,” Helton said. “They usually find a new head coach, so you’d better put the best 11 out there that you can put out there.”
USC may be done losing games. Much of that is thanks to Darnold.
Since taking over the starting job, Darnold has righted a once-moribund USC offense, winning four of five and all but single-handedly dismantling Cal on Thursday night, 45-24.
By the end of the first half, Darnold had thrown for four touchdowns and nearly 200 yards, and it could have been two more had the Trojans not fumbled twice – one of which was entirely on Darnold. Still: His line of 18 completions on 25 attempts for 231 yards and five scores was impressive.
To be fair, Darnold’s promotion was incredibly fortuitous. While Browne had to weather beatings from the elephantine defensive lines of Alabama and Stanford, Darnold has been able to enjoy picking apart Arizona State, Colorado, Arizona and, on Thursday, Cal. The only respectable defense he has faced is Utah, against whom he scored 27 points, more than any other team had at that point in the season.
It has only gotten better since then.
In three of the last four games, USC has scored more than 40 points, with a favorable matchup against Oregon looming. It’s a good time to peak, with Washington just two weeks away and a road trip to rival UCLA following that. Win all three and USC, once again, however improbably, will be back in contention for the Pac-12 championship.
Browne, for his part, has taken it well.
“I know how these things work,” he said. “Usually, once the young guy goes, you know how it is. I’ll be ready. I owe it to my teammates and the guys I’ve been with four years now. I owe it to them to stay ready, and I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready at a moment’s notice.”
With the way Darnold and USC have been playing, there will be no need for that.