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Scouting Sam Darnold in Cotton Bowl: QB not up to challenge

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- I made the trip to the Cotton Bowl on Friday night because I wanted to see how USC QB Sam Darnold would react when faced with the toughest test he's encountered to date -- a meeting with the highly talented Ohio State defense.

He was going to have to play his best football for USC to even be competitive in the game.

He wasn't up to the challenge Friday.

Darnold played an average game, completing 26 of 45 passes for 356 yards and no TDs -- he turned the ball over three times -- in a 24-7 loss to the Buckeyes.

Here are five takeaways on the Trojans star after scouting him in person Friday.

1. It was a disappointing night for Darnold, obviously, but I don't think his performance was as bad as some are making it out to be. People are acting like the sky is falling. It's not.

The degree of difficulty for him Friday was off the charts. He had no support from the run game and little help from his pass protection. He was constantly in third-and-long situations. There were no layups for him.

However, I think NFL evaluators are going to see a lot good things from Darnold when they study tape from this game. It's just a question of whether they believe his ball-security issues can be coached out of him.

They're going to like everything else about him.

2. Yes, the turnover issue for Darnold reared its ugly head again.

He had played cleaner football down the stretch this season, but some of those old habits came out Friday night. He made a terrible read on a pick that was returned for a TD. Interceptions don't bother me nearly as much as fumbles, and he had two crucial fumbles against Ohio State. QBs are going to throw interceptions, especially if they're being aggressive, but they have to protect the football inside the pocket.

The concerns I have with Darnold are ball security, first and foremost.

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3. As for what I liked ... He made several big-time throws, the most impressive of which came on a third-and-17 throw he made for a first down in the third quarter. He shows you he has the talent and the tools to do everything an NFL team would ask him to do. He just has to eliminate the costly errors.

4. Now that USC's 2017 season is over, we can all hurry up and wait for Darnold to reveal his plans for 2018. He said after the game Friday that he'll consult with his family and other people close to him before he makes a decision on whether to stay in school or apply for early entry into the 2018 draft.

He'll be arguably the biggest domino to fall, no matter which choice he makes, between now and the Jan. 15 deadline for underclassmen to declare.

5. He wasn't playing Friday night, but this game is a feather in Baker Mayfield's cap.

I don't think the situations are identical, but you can't argue with the fact that Ohio State has a defense full of future pros and Mayfield carved them up early this season.

Having been in draft rooms as an NFL scout, if you have a strong opinion of Mayfield, that's a point that's going to get brought up in meetings this spring leading up to the big event.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter at @MoveTheSticks.

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