Here’s a surprising sentence: Sam Darnold did not have a touchdown pass in his first game this season, but he did have two interceptions.
Here’s another one: Statistically, Sam Darnold had one of his worst games of his career.
And yet, in his first game following one of the most unprecedented freshman seasons (and one of the more overhyped offseasons), Sam Darnold actually had a serviceable performance, even if it wasn’t exactly Heisman-worthy (spoiler—he doesn’t care). More importantly, he did enough to win.
The first weekend of college football is a time for bias confirmation as much as it is a time for overreaction. When fans finally get what they’ve been waiting for—in this case, more than 60 games in one weekend after months of going without—they’re ready to make judgements off one game, one quarter, and one play. It’s natural. Even if, at times, it’s counterintuitive.
Earlier on Saturday, the overreactions began with Josh Allen, the other top quarterback prospect playing in college football this season. Allen’s Wyoming team faced Iowa in the season opener and Allen struggled to find a groove, throwing for only 174 yards and two awful-looking interceptions in a 24-3 loss.
Josh Allen throwing behind a wide open WR for an easy interception. pic.twitter.com/5yxUYmLuov— Ryan McCrystal (@Ryan_McCrystal) May 5, 2017
The wave of overreactions that ensued was alarming. One-game sample size be damned.
Darnold didn’t seem to perform as the dashing quarterback everyone projected him to be either. And once he threw not one but two interceptions of his own, the mob was ready to unleash on the “overhyped” narrative. Of course, a look at Twitter or his average statline in the box score doesn’t tell you the whole story, and given that this game was on the Pac-12 Networks, you probably didn’t have a chance to see it at all.
Darnold’s wide receivers dropped a number of easy balls, and both of his interceptions came on a tipped ball and a ridiculous, if nearly overruled, play by a WMU defender. Darnold’s final line was 289 yards on 23-of-33 passes, a running touchdown, multiple key throws on the run, and leading two long drives that helped USC solidify a double-digit win after Western Michigan kept it close throughout the game.
Sam Darnold TD Run ties the game vs WMU at 21 in the 3rd QTR pic.twitter.com/mOHcm4esxr— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) September 2, 2017
Of course, Darnold was backed by a running game that tore through the Broncos defense and totaled five touchdowns and 232 yards. The USC defense also helped with a pick-six that sealed the result. But because the hype reached uncontrollable levels before the season even began, any falter or misstep is immediately magnified into a thesis about how Darnold (or Allen, or the next guy) isn’t as good as everyone made him out to be. That’s a reality. Another reality is that this is only Darnold’s 11th start of his college football career, and the pressure put on him, whether he feels it or not, is daunting. A world in which he would be the perfect player to bring USC back to its former glory, flawless drive after flawless drive, does not exist.
Clutch pass from Darnold while pressured in the 4th quarter pic.twitter.com/5Bg8psmKI6— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 3, 2017
It’s hard to ask for nuance in a situation that is typically so binary. Darnold had a bad game, therefore he is bad. Allen looked bad, therefore he can’t be a top prospect any longer. The vacuum of college football Saturdays can be a fun place to live in and escape to, a perfect space to react freely with opinions, confirmations, and observations. But it’s also one that requires proper context—and more than just numbers—if one wants to make sweeping judgements.
Both Darnold and Allen struggled. That is undisputable. But there is a disconnect when struggles immediately mean conclusions. This is Week 1, people. That team you picked in the playoffs that barely beat a non-conference opponent may still be OK. The quarterback that is supposed to lead your team to the promised land stumbled, but he didn’t fall. Heck, if your team lost, all’s not lost. It never is in college football—this is where volatility and chaos rule on a week-to-week basis. Come Week 2, we could see Allen and Darnold go off, throwing for three touchdowns and 400 yards, looking just like the players we thought they were all along.