USC QB Sam Darnold first showed he was ‘real’ in initial start vs. Utah – Daily News



LOS ANGELES — In the end, the visiting locker room at Rice-Eccles Stadium was glum.

Some of USC’s players were in tears, left to confront another defeat.

On a rainy September night at Utah last year, the Trojans stumbled in the final moments, the last-second loss marking their third of the season and their worst start in 15 years.

Amid some of the desolation afterward, Sam Darnold spoke up.

“He was just like, ‘Guys, we’re going to be fine,’ ” said tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, then a redshirt freshman. “It was just like, dang, he’s my age, and he’s talking like that. I’m young too. If he’s confident, then shoot. He made it easy for us to be confident and great things happened as a result of that.”

Darnold, also a redshirt freshman at the time, had made his first start as the team’s quarterback, a switch when he took over for veteran passer Max Browne.

USC will host Utah on Saturday for the first time since the meeting in Salt Lake City last fall, when the direction of its program was altered.

The Trojans found a quarterback, and they started winning again.

“He just provided us the guy that everybody could rally around,” Imatorbhebhe said.

With Darnold behind center, they won their remaining nine games, their best finish since the Pete Carroll era, and then started this season 5-1 overall, with hopes of making a run toward the College Football Playoff.

In their first three games prior to facing Utah last season, their offense floundered. The Trojans were held to 194 yards of total offense in their worst season-opening loss ever to preseason No .1 Alabama. They were not explosive, averaging 4.6 yards per play. For a comparison, in the 10 games with Darnold as the starter, they averaged 6.9 yards per play.

The uptick started against the Utes.

Darnold completed 69 percent of his passes for 253 yards, and added a running threat, picking up 41 yards on the ground.

His performance left an impression with his teammates.

Running back Ronald Jones recalled one run in the third quarter. A quarterback draw sent Darnold running toward the end zone. He leapt forward in the air to pick up the final yards, absorbing a hit, before crossing the goal line for an 8-yard touchdown.

“We were like, ‘Oh yeah, this dude is real,’ ” Jones said, “and the rest is history.”

The evening offered Darnold hope, too.

He arrived at USC with less fanfare compared to other recruits, but he seized the stage.

“It was kind of a weird feeling to a certain extent,” Darnold said. “Obviously, we lost and that’s never a good thing. But at the same time, I kind of realized I could play college ball.”

In the days before the game, USC coach Clay Helton outlined a hope that Darnold, who had first pushed Browne for the starting job in training camp, might provide a spark.

He did.

“You just kind of knew this was the last piece of the puzzle that’s going to put us over the top to being a successful team,” Helton said.

INJURY DEVELOPMENTS

Helton did not rule out the possibility that Imatorbhebhe, who has been out with a strained hip flexor since the season-opening win over Western Michigan, could return against Utah, a week ahead of schedule.

Imatorbhebhe has taken part in practice this week for the first time since before the opener.

“He’s a little bit ahead of schedule and feeling good right now,” Helton said.

USC’s original target date for a return was at Notre Dame on Oct. 21.

As for whether he plays against the Utes, Helton said he would defer to the team doctors, as well as Imatorbhebhe.

Chuma Edoga, the Trojans’ starting right tackle, also returned to practice on Wednesday for the first time since he suffered a high ankle sprain at Washington State.



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