Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry didn’t want to compare Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold to any particular player.
Pry said the Trojans’ redshirt freshman signal-caller had the size of former Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg and possesses the maneuverability of Trace McSorley.
But Pry recognizes that Darnold is his own player — a cannon-armed, wise-beyond-his-years quarterback that Penn State has to deal with soon enough.
Darnold leads the No. 9 Trojans (9-3, 7-2) and their devastatingly dangerous offense into Monday’s Rose Bowl against No. 5 Penn State, and the Nittany Lions know what kind of challenge the California kid presents.
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“That Darnold kid,” Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “Quick release, he has a strong and accurate arm. He finds his playmakers, simple as that. He really commands their offense.”
“They are saying he’s a freshman,” Nittany Lions cornerback John Reid added. “That’s not how he plays.”
Ever since USC coach Clay Helton benched Max Browne in favor of Darnold, the Trojan offense has been one of college football’s juggernauts. During USC’s eight-game winning streak, the Trojans are averaging 38.4 points per game.
A big reason for that success is Darnold’s breakthrough.
The Capistrano Beach native posted modest numbers in his debut against Utah, but was unleashed after that. In nine starts, Darnold has 2,633 yards, 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.
Also consider that he has 18 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the red zone, and Darnold is difficult to deal with where it matters most.
“He doesn’t hold onto the ball,” Pry said. “He’s smart enough that he’s not going to be careless with it. I think they’re asking him to do the right things.”
So what’s the formula to stopping him?
“The most important thing is to make sure that we get Sam Darnold off balance and not in rhythm,” Cabinda said. “That’s definitely a guy we’re going to have to stop.”
Pry got a little technical with it.
“When we roll out our base calls, there are a couple of coverages and a couple of pressures that we’re going to ride out every week,” the defensive coordinator said. “Then in your later downs, we’re going to have our staple blitzes that we try to gear toward their protections. ... He’s not going to sit back there and hold the ball long. So we’ve got to come clean on him.”
The problem for the Nittany Lions is the USC offense, while run by Darnold, has more to offer than just the quarterback.
Trojan running back Ronald Jones II rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per rush, and wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers are a lethal one-two combo. Smith-Schuster has 63 catches for 731 yards and nine touchdowns, while Rogers tallied 54 receptions, 654 yards and three scores this season.
Pair those weapons with Darnold’s underrated escapability — he’s taken only five sacks this season — and the Penn State secondary will have its hands full.
“It’s definitely difficult,” Reid said of when a quarterback like Darnold breaks contain, “but at the same time, you need to stay fundamentally sound. ... It’s just pretty much staying as disciplined as possible, staying with your man, not necessarily looking back at the quarterback and lose your guy.”
On Monday, Penn State will face the most dynamic offense it’s seen all year.
Penn State safety Marcus Allen said USC’s scheme reminds the Nittany Lions of Indiana and Ohio State to a degree — but the Trojans’ cavalcade is another animal.
“They’re so different that it’s kind of like being a little disrespectful to compare them to other teams,” Allen said. “They’ve got their own thing.”
A scary thing, at that.