A season ago, the Arizona State Sun Devils were hard-pressed to stop any offense.
Early in the season; however, that didn’t seem to matter. At 4-0, the Sun Devils traveled to Los Angeles to face the struggling USC Trojans, reeling at 1-3 and fresh off a quarterback change.
USC coach Clay Helton made the decision a week prior to replace opening day starter Max Browne with then-redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. The heralded four-star recruit waited his turn behind Cody Kessler, waiting for his opportunity, but Helton had seen enough following inept offensive performances against Alabama and Stanford in the first few weeks.
When the Sun Devils arrived at the Coliseum, Darnold had thrown just 48 passes for the Trojans for 389 yards and lost his lone start to Utah the week prior.
Sixty minutes later, the young signal caller collected the first win of his career, setting the tone for a run to the Rose Bowl.
But that was without much on what Darnold can do and, possibly more importantly, what he can’t.
Coach Todd Graham praised the Trojan quarterback during his Monday press conference, saying how much you have to gameplan to keep him from throwing all over the yard.
“He’s a guy you’ve got to have a really strong plan for,” Graham said. “He extends plays, he can really damage you. You’ve got to have a solid plan for that.”
Senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood praised the redshirt sophomore’s ability to keep plays alive with his legs, something that teams can overlook when preparing for him.
“By looking at him, you wouldn’t guess he moves the way he does,” Smallwood said. “He can move, he can make plays with his feet, he can extend plays... And when he’s running, he’s looking downfield to make a big play.”
Normally, to defend a player who thrives making plays on the move, a defense would attack the pocket and attempt to make sure the passer doesn’t have any place to move, but that’s not how Darnold operates.
“He loves pressure,” senior linebacker DJ Calhoun said. “That’s one of his main things. He wants people to come after him. He has a third eye, I guess you could say.”
But with a quarterback so eager to make big plays comes to capability for game-changing plays going the other way.
“One thing he does do is turn the ball over,” Smallwood said. “For us, knowing that, it’s something we have to expose.”
In eight games, Darnold has been intercepted 10 times and has lost fumbles in critical junctures, including at the end of the game in USC’s loss to Washington State and on the first play against Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, ASU is coming off its most dynamic game taking the ball away of the season. In week eight against Utah, the Sun Devils intercepted four passes, including one returned for a touchdown by junior linebacker Jay Jay Wilson.
Thus makes for a tough tightrope to cross for the explosive Darnold. If he can find passing lanes similar to the ones ASU allowed at the Coliseum a season ago, he may return to Heisman form. But if the cornerback tandem of redshirt freshman Chase Lucas and sophomore Kobe Williams stays true to the form of the past couple weeks, there could be trouble afoot for the Trojans in Tempe.
And Smallwood expects the latter.
“Expect for us to dominate,” Smallwood said. “Not just one phase, but offense, defense, special teams.”