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Cool Hand Sam: The Rise of USC Quarterback Sam Darnold

For the past 3 seasons, I have had high expectations for the USC Trojans. They have had just too much talent to not be a really good team.

In 2014, the Trojans finished with a 9-4 record, which isn’t bad. But, they were upset by Boston College on the road. Then, they lost to 3 ranked teams in the Pac 12 Conference.

With a talented group of players returning, 2015 brought even bigger expectations for USC. Things started as anticipated with two big wins over bad teams, but then they lost to Stanford. In their fourth game, the Trojans crushed Arizona State on the road.

Then, the wheels came off as the rumors about Trojan coach Steve Sarkisian having a drinking problem proved accurate. The Trojans looked really pathetically awful on a Thursday night against Washington. Not only did they lose to the Husky team that would finish 7-6 on the season, but

Sarkisian was promptly fired by USC Athletic Director Pat Haden.

Clay Helton was named interim head coach and the Trojans finished with a rather unimpressive 8-6 record. They did win the Pac 12 South, but the South was awful in 2015 and they won it mostly by default. In the Pac 12 Championship game they were whipped again by Stanford and it was even uglier than the first loss to the Cardinal.

Clay Helton was later hired as full time coach and many questioned the sanity of the people running the show at USC. But, the players loved Helton.


In spite of the lack of confidence in Helton, there were still expectations of a great season for the Trojans going into the 2016 football season. Max Browne was once the highest rated Quarterback in the country and he had patiently awaited his turn as the Trojan Quarterback. USC had stars like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree Jackson, plus everyone back on their Offensive Line. There was too much talent for this team not to be good.


Then, Alabama happened. The Trojans were crushed 52-6 by the top ranked Crimson Tide.


USC beat a really bad Utah State team in their second game, but then Stanford beat them 27-10 and it didn’t even feel that close.


At 1-2 on the season, Helton decided it was time to try somebody else at Quarterback and he named Sam Darnold as his starter.

The rewards were not immediate as the Trojans traveled to Utah to take on the Utes and the misery continued as the Trojans came up short and lost yet again, 27-31.

The once promising season was now shattered and USCC was 1-3 on the season. USC fans were irate about Clay Helton as their head coach.  He was in over his head, they thought.

But, things started to change. It helped that the Pac 12, and particularly the Southern Division, was really weak in 2016.

USC went on a roll starting with Arizona State who they beat, 41-20. That was the start of a 9 game winning streak including wins over Colorado and Washington. They crushed their biggest rivals,

UCLA and Notre Dame to finish the once 1-3 season at 9-3.

With their victory over Colorado, USC earned the Rose Bowl berth against Big 10 champion, Penn State.

The reason for the turnaround?

The answer is easy. Redshirt freshman Quarterback Sam Darnold is the biggest reason for the change.

This kid is just cool under pressure and doesn’t show any emotion while picking apart defenses. Even when he makes a mistake, he is not rattled and keeps calm because he knows he can make up for it.

The 6-4, 225 Capistrano Beach, California native just has something that most guys don’t possess. He also seemed to form special bonds with his receivers and teammates.

This guy is a first round draft pick in the making.

During his first season, he threw for 3,086 yards and 31 Touchdowns. He did throw 9 Interceptions, but those didn’t seem to bother Darnold at all as he quickly recovered.

He’s also got good mobility and can escape the pass rush and make plays with his feet, or complete passes on the move.

He saved his best game for his last and in front of a national television audience, Darnold completed 33 passes out of 53 attempts for a Rose Bowl record 453 yards and 5 Touchdowns. He had to make some big plays because his team was behind 27-42 early in the 3rd quarter. The valiant Penn State Nittany Lions held the Trojan running game in check most of the night, so Darnold took to the air to led his team to 22 straight points to take a 49-42 lead. Penn State mounted it’s own comeback and tied the score at 49 a piece.

After an interception by Trojan Safety Leon McQuay III, Darnold quickly got the team in place to

kick the winning Field Goal with just a few seconds left on the clock.

The field goal was not a sure thing as usually reliable Matt Boermeester missed 2 earlier in the game. But, he booted it right through with no time left on the clock for the Trojans to come out with a 52-49 win.

Through it all, Sam Darnold was cool and calm.

Cool Hand Sam is not his nickname, but maybe it should be after the kind of season this future NFL star produced.

The Trojans will have some losses after the season, with some seniors and some guys will declare for the NFL. But, thanks to Darnold, they will be a team to keep an eye on for next season. He is already the Heisman favorite for 2017.


There’s nothing like a little pressure, but that won’t bother a guy as cool as Sam Darnold.