The sophomore is one of the early Heisman favorites after bursting onto the scene as a redshirt freshman and has led the Trojans to 11 consecutive wins — he hasn’t suffered a loss since falling to Utah nearly a year ago.
At 6’4 and 220 pounds, Darnold is the prototypical pocket passer with a strong, accurate arm. Yet, he’s not a statue, either.
“Can make every throw in the book, really can,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said this week. “From all different kinds of arm angles. And I think when you see him and you see his stature, you think, oh, this guy can't run. The guy can run. He's pretty elusive.”
Last season, Darnold threw for over 3,000 yards by completing 67.2 percent of his passes, with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In the first two games of 2017, he’s increased his completion percentage to 74.2 percent and thrown four touchdowns.
Since Darnold can make every throw necessary, the USC offense is particularly dangerous — there’s no part of the field that he can’t hit, and he rarely misfires.
“Sam (Darnold) does a great job of distributing the football and getting guys in space,” said Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. “If you make one mistake they're down the sideline. When you watch them on tape, that's what makes them very difficult to defend.”
Against Western Michigan, Darnold confirmed the accuracy of Herman’s statement about throwing from different arm angles — his release is lightning quick and he’s capable of generating high-level velocity from his arm strength alone.
“He's very impressive,” Orlando said. “Some of the throws that he made last year, even the throw that he made against Stanford. He trusts his arm and in his opinion he can put the ball wherever he wants to. Most of the time he is right.”
As a result, Darnold has the look of NFL gunslingers like Aaron Rodgers at his best and Jay Cutler at his worst. His arm strength makes up for footwork that is far from ideal on many throws, as he often drifts.
Generally, Darnold is able to hit his target without generating any power from his lower body, but when pressure gets in his face and he puts too much reliance on his ability to fit the ball into small windows, he can get into trouble.
Through the first two games, he’s already thrown four interceptions, with two against Western Michigan and two against Stanford. Three of those four intercepted were tipped by defenders when Darnold forced passes.
So while he’s not exactly prone to mistakes, he is more than willing to make risky throws.
Behind two impressive tackles, Darnold was rarely sacked as a freshman — only six times all season. Both of those tackles are gone now and the line isn’t quite as good this year as a result — he’s taken three sacks through two games — but it’s clear that the talent of the line and Darnold’s mobility make him tough to bring down.
And the big-play ability of the USC wide receivers and running backs heighten the costs of giving up a long touchdown. As Orlando put it on Wednesday evening, these speedsters aren’t getting caught from behind.
“It's not one of those, run them down for an 18-yard gain,” Orlando said. “It's block right or block left because they're kicking an extra point. That's the part of this offense that's going to be hard to defend.”
However, the increased risk from pressure packages won’t entirely stop Orlando from blitzing Darnold.
“There has to be a balance of it,” he said. “If you let him sit back there and just pat the ball he'll just pick you apart.”
Whatever type of balance Orlando decides to strike in regards to his blitzes, Texas will have to generate some pressure from the defensive front — expecting multiple drive-killing sacks is unlikely based on the recent results from both teams, but collapsing the pocket and forcing Darnold to reset his feet is the only hope for forcing errant passes.
In the secondary, that means tight coverage and a decrease in the breakdowns that plagued Texas against Maryland and San Jose State. The Terps took advantage of those issues, while the Spartans did not, but there’s no question that the ‘Horns will be deciding between block right and block left if those problems continue.
If the Longhorns can consistently push the pocket on Darnold and keep defenders around his intended targets, there’s a chance to force an interception or two and a few misfires. Perhaps even a sack or two.
The bottom line, however?
Stopping Darnold isn’t likely — no one has really done that yet — so the only hope is to contain him and make enough big plays on both sides of the ball to win.