LOS ANGELES -- USC survived a big scare from Utah in Week 7, escaping with a 28-27 win. Sam Darnold led the Trojans back from a 21-7 halftime deficit, and I was in attendance to study him on Saturday night.
This was my first time scouting Darnold in person this season, and while he and his teammates started very slowly against the Utes, the QB turned it on in the second half, finishing the night 27 of 50 (a season-high in attempts) for 358 yards and 3 touchdowns. He's had his ups and downs this season, but I still consider him the top QB prospect in the game.
Here are five takeaways from his performance against the Utes.
1. Darnold had to overcome an ugly start to the game. Poor ball handling has plagued him for the past couple seasons, and the issue reared its head early vs. Utah. He lost a fumble on a bad exchange during a zone read where he was indecisive. Then he had a careless fumble as he was running to his left that was scooped up and returned for a TD by Utah. Those both occurred in the first quarter.
He didn't have an interception on Saturday (his first INT-free game of the season), but he did have some close calls on passes that could have been picked early in the game. He has to do a better job of taking care of the ball.
2. He's at his best when everything is going against him. Once again, when presented with a challenge, he delivered. With USC facing a 14-point deficit (the largest deficit they've faced all season), Darnold took over the game in the second half, especially on third and fourth downs, leading the Trojans on TD drives of 98, 88 and 93 yards. He went 6 for 6, and ran for a first down, on third and fourth downs during those three TD drives. They had several third-and-long situations that weren't easy to navigate against a good defense like Utah's. He made every play.
It showed a little bit of his will, toughness and competitiveness.
That's why I'm still shocked he fumbled the ball away at the end of the Washington State game a couple weeks ago (USC's only loss of the season). That's the only time I can think of where he didn't step up and deliver down the stretch.
3. Despite some of his inconsistencies, Darnold is putting together a nice highlight reel for the 2017 season. When you look back on the end of the Texas game (Week 3), the way he played vs. Stanford (Week 2) and his second half vs. Utah, it's easy to see why there's been so much excitement about him.
I think we get caught up too much in some of the turnover issues he's had. He's also had some pretty magnificent moments.
4. I was glad to see him get back to using his legs more in this game. He had a 14-yard run in the fourth quarter on third-and-10 and had to make a defender miss to get the first down. It was a reminder that he has the ability to make plays with his feet.
His two second-half touchdown passes also highlighted his mobility. On a 17-yard TD pass to Tyler Petite, Darnold scrambled to his left and climbed back up in the pocket, threatening to run before throwing a strike in the middle of the field for the score.
Then, on a bootleg down at the goal line, he showed his athleticism and craftiness to try to pull a defender up and dump the ball over his head for a 1-yard TD pass to Josh Falo.
You got to see Darnold's whole repertoire on display in this game.
5. Darnold's intangibles stand out when you watch him up close. One of the reasons scouts travel to games is to see how prospects interact with their team. When you watch Darnold in pregame warmups and on the sideline during the game, he's very much one of the guys. You can see people gravitate toward him.
Even with USC down 14 points in the second half to a good team on Saturday, you felt like he was the best player in the stadium and that it was eventually going to show itself.
It took a while, but it did on Saturday.