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The Trojans Backup Plan Has Led to a Pac 12 Resurgence

After a 1-2 start to the season, the USC Trojans placed their future in the hands of backup quarterback Sam Darnold. The move has paid dividends as USC has won five straight.

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    Breakfast of Champions
    Harry How/Getty Images
    Quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the USC Trojans looks down field during the first quarter against the California Golden Bears at Los Angeles Coliseum on October 27, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

    Just over a month ago, the USC Trojans football program was under tremendous pressure.

    Losses to Alabama and Stanford had the school at 1-2 on the young season and head coach Clay Helton found himself on the proverbial hot seat just three games into his first full season in charge. 

    The criticism of coach Helton was harsh, especially after the Trojans losses came at the hands of teams who were currently ranked in the top 10 at the time.

    Nonetheless, when you're USC, you're relegated to a certain standard of greatness, one that Helton and his Trojans had yet to reach. Therefore, following the loss to Stanford, Helton rolled the dice on redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold.

    Darnold was named the starting quarterback for a game against No. 24 ranked Utah in the riotous environment known as Rice-Eccles stadium.

    The freshman was fantastic in his first start and commanded the Trojans to a 27-17 fourth quarter lead before an ill-timed fumble and some gutsy coaching calls on fourth down by the Utes gave Utah the last-second victory.

    Despite the loss, Darnold's debut was record-setting as no Trojan quarterback had a better passing performance (as far as completion percentage) or rushing yards as Darnold did against Utah.

    That includes a long list of quarterbacks, many of whom play(ed) between the lines on Sundays: Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley and Cody Kessler.

    After the game, Helton said he gave Darnold the start against the Utes because he wanted to "spark" the offense. In reality, Darnold deserved to start week one, but his age and inexperience made him the backup.

    Sometimes Plan B is the best option. In the case of Darnold, he was the more talented quarterback when fall workouts began in late July/early August. Darnold competed for the starting job with Junior Max Browne, a better pocket-passing quarterback. 

    Ironically, Darnold wasn't a highly recruited player out of high school. Unlike Browne who was the 2012 National High School Player of the Year, Darnold wasn't considered a five-star recruit or a big "get" in the 2015 signing class.

    Instead the "three-star" recruit focused on basketball where he was an All-league player in the city of San Clemente. Both his parents were athletes and he credits his desire to play for the Trojans to his grandfather, Dick Hammer, who played basketball at USC in 1954 and led them to the Final Four.

    Hammer also played volleyball at USC and represented the United States Men's Volleyball team in the 1964 Olympic games. Darnold knows being a Trojan is in his blood and credits his court vision for his ability to see down the field between the lines and it showed in those early practices as he looked lethal, competing against the Trojans defense.

    "It's well documented that I'm a longtime USC fan," said Darnold. "I think basketball and football and really any sport correlates with hand-eye coordination."

    Helton made the decision that Browne would be his starter and Darnold the backup just a few days before the team traveled to Arlington, Texas to take on the No. 1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. 

    One has to wonder that if the opponent was anybody else then the reigning National Champions, and best team in the country, if Darnold would have been the starter.

    Darnold provides the Trojans with a potent offensive attack they haven't seen since Reggie Perry in 1991, and has led a resurgence at USC as the team rises up the Pac 12 ranks.

    "I think I can definitely get better," added Darnold. "I assess myself with how I feel after the game with my performance, the turnovers, there's always a lot of stuff to learn from and I'm going to continue to do that."

    With Darnold behind center the Trojans are marching on the Pac-12 South with visions of a conference title and a major bowl game.

    They've tallied a five-game win streak and Darnold has only gotten better after each game, proving the sky's the limit. If there's a chink in his armor, it's his propensity for fumbles. Darnold has fumbled six times this season, including one in Utah that may have cost his team the game against the Utes.

    His three fumbles (two lost) against the No. 15 Colorado Buffaloes kept a game that USC should have won handedly, close for all four quarters.

    "Being a quarterback coach by trade, I said, 'This is a great learning lesson,'" said Helton of the fumbles. "There's going to be growing pains as there always are with a redshirt freshman quarterback. Right now there are more positives than negatives and he's growing by the minute."

    In his next game, Darnold threw for a record five touchdowns in a 48-14 thrashing over the Arizona Wildcats. One week later, he made history once again as he threw five more touchdowns in a 45-24 victory against longtime foe, Cal.

    "This is the game I've been playing since third grade," Darnold said about the primetime matchup with Cal. "That never changes for me. Obviously the stages get bigger as you go along, but I don't think any stage is too big for me."

    Darnold made sure to continue the Trojans undefeated record against the Golden Bears at home in the 21st century and tied Hesiman favorite Lamar Jackson of Louisville with the nation's best total QBR rating (91.3) in the process.

    One week later Darnold gave the Trojans some much-needed payback against the Oregon Ducks who defeated USC in four of the last five meetings.

    Darnold threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns in the Trojans homecoming game as USC demolished Oregon, 45-20. The game marked the fifth straight contest that Darnold has thrown multiple touchdown passes. 

    "I probably think a lot more about my mistakes than the touchdowns," added Darnold. "A lot more of the opportunities we left on the table to be honest you. There's still a lot of things I need to work on in the passing game."

    There's just three games remaining on the schedule for Darnold and the Trojans, but a chance at winning the Pac 12 South title and competing in the conference championship is still on the horizon if the Trojans can win out.

    Things only get harder for the freshman quarterback from here as USC rumbles with the No. 4 ranked team in the country in Washington next week in Seattle.

    After the Huskies, the Trojans tangle with their inner-city rivals, the UCLA Bruins in the battle for Los Angeles. Coincidentally, Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen is someone Darnold has been compared to frequently, with one Pac 12 coach suggesting that Darnold is better than Rosen.

    "He's special," said the coach who wished to remain anonymous.

    He certainly is. 

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