The backpack that Sam Darnold brings to every game is emblazoned with the Rose Bowl logo. As the redshirt sophomore quarterback carried it out of the locker room after no. 4 USC’s 27-24 double-overtime win against Texas on Saturday, the similarities between the game-tying drive he’d just led and the one he’d orchestrated nine months ago in Pasadena were eerie.
In January, USC trailed Penn State by seven points with 1:50 remaining in the fourth quarter. Darnold engineered a three-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to even the score, and the Trojans went on to win 52-49 in a classic. On Saturday night, USC was down by three points with only 45 seconds left in regulation. Darnold trotted onto the field with the offense for a drive that started on their own 35-yard line.
“I was just super calm in that moment,” said Darnold, who once again showcased his unflappable demeanor. “As long as [the clock] wasn’t below 20 seconds, I thought we could go out there and score.”
USC freshman running back Stephen Carr had watched the Rose Bowl Game against the Nittany Lions from home. He saw this latest comeback begin as he stood on the sideline, and the teammates around him couldn’t help but marvel at the connection.
“Everybody kept saying, ‘This is just like the Rose Bowl,’” Carr told me after the win. On the third play of USC’s game-tying drive, the 6-foot, 210-pound back made a 21-yard catch to get the Trojans into field goal range, reeling in a jump pass from Darnold that looked like a video game glitch. It had the perfect trajectory and touch to find Carr in the middle of the field. “He has the eye of the eagle, man,” Carr said of Darnold. “He will see somebody open that nobody else sees. And he’ll hit him. On the bulls’-eye.”
After Darnold completed another long pass, this one to senior receiver Steven Mitchell Jr., freshman walk-on kicker Chase McGrath converted a 31-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.
The Trojans entered this matchup as a heavy favorite, with plenty at stake: A loss would have damaged their College Football Playoff aspirations, hurt Darnold’s Heisman Trophy hopes, and bruised the program’s ego given that this was a rematch of the 2006 Rose Bowl Game, when Vince Young and the Longhorns toppled USC on the fourth-and-5 scamper heard round the world. And after Texas pulled ahead in this game’s final minutes, history appeared set to repeat itself. Darnold, who finished 28-of-49 passing for 397 yards, fell out of rhythm in spurts and threw two interceptions.
As has become custom, though, he shook off those mistakes like scattered blades of grass on his uniform. When it mattered most, the projected no. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft executed, lifting his team’s record to 3-0.
In the first overtime period, Darnold needed one play to score a touchdown, delivering a perfectly thrown dart to Deontay Burnett. After Texas answered with a touchdown, the Longhorns fumbled on their next drive. McGrath split the uprights once more to save USC from an upset at the hands of an unranked opponent—one with an impressive quarterback of its own.
In the southeast corner of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the burnt orange faithful stood out all night. Against the backdrop of the light-pink seats, they cheered loudly throughout a game in which they were badly outnumbered. True freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger had given them reason to believe. “It was the first time we’ve heard a big roar for our offense in the last two games,” Ehlinger told reporters after the game.
After completing only five passes for 89 yards in the first half, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound passer tapped into his inner gunslinger, throwing for more than 200 yards in the second half and overtime. With a game plan that was far from conservative, he didn’t opt for checkdowns; he gunned for home runs.
“If we were going to go down, we were going to go down swinging,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said during his postgame press conference. “[Ehlinger] was a warrior against a top-five team.”
Ehlinger had trouble completing any pass under 10 yards, particularly early. But on deeper throws he sometimes looked like the best quarterback on the field. That was especially true on a 47-yard bomb to sophomore wide receiver Collin Johnson with just under two minutes left in regulation, a completion that helped the Longhorns take a shocking lead.
Texas was supposed to be to be overmatched, and it seemed that way for much of the first half. Yet USC failed to capitalize on several key chances, and the Longhorns defense put the team in position to stun 80,000-plus Trojans fans who surrounded the burnt orange pocket in the corner of the stadium. This was the same Texas team that lost to Maryland 51-41 in Week 1; something magical must happen when the Longhorns and Trojans meet.
A sold-out Coliseum wasn’t exactly a training-wheels-type setting for Ehlinger, who started the second game of his career because sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele was out with a shoulder injury. But as Ehlinger walked out of the visitor’s locker room Saturday night, he had the look of a player who knew he had done all that he could. “That’s what Coach Herman told us,” Ehlinger said. “‘Fight, fight, fight’ and we’re going to get it.’”
Herman refused to endorse Ehlinger with the starting job after the game, saying that Buechele would also get first-team reps if he’s healthy for a September 28 visit to Iowa State. But it seems clear that Ehlinger will be the guy in Austin. Texas has been desperate for standout quarterback play since Colt McCoy went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter of the 2010 BCS Championship Game against Alabama. And while talk of Texas being back has been greatly exaggerated in the past, the floppy-haired Ehlinger might just be the player to make that a reality.
A game that was billed as a rematch 11 years in the making turned into a tale of the two Sams, and it produced one of the most thrilling finishes of the young 2017 season. Saturday’s intersection of these two passers could go down as a significant chapter for both: It adds to Darnold’s growing legend at USC, and it launches Ehlinger’s hype cycle as the latest quarterback to be billed as a potential Texas savior.
“I wish nothing but the best for Sam … at the other school,” USC’s Carr said of Ehlinger, before shifting his focus back to Darnold. “And this Sam? Man, he’s just going to keep making plays.”