This past weekend, USC got stomped out by Stanford. That such a development is barely a blip on the radar is, as others have pointed out, alarming in an of itself from the USC perspective, and already first-year head coach Clay Helton appears to be cracking under the pressure.
Yesterday, Helton demoted starting quarterback Max Browne and replaced him with his backup Sam Darnold. Like many of his peers, Helton spent the opening weeks of the season toying with his quarterback position—Browne was named the starter, and was voted by his teammates as captain, but Darnold has appeared in each of USC’s first three games. Still, this wasn’t a pure timeshare like what we saw in Notre Dame’s opening game—Browne has thrown 87 passes this year to Darnold’s 22—but Darnold, though he can scoot around better than Browne, isn’t deployed only in specific packages à la Texas’ Tyrone Swoopes.
Really, it seemed like Helton was unable to decide which of his two highly-rated quarterbacks gave his team the best chance to win. In USC’s opening night pummeling at the hands of Alabama, Darnold was brought in during the third quarter with the Trojans down 31-3, but after a few ineffective drives he was replaced by Browne, before coming back in again with USC down 52-6. Against Stanford, Darnold was thrown in for a play in what appeared to be some sort of quasi-Wildcat package. Later, he picked up a garbage time drive that ended in an interception.
That Darnold is the man now isn’t entirely surprising—he was pushing Browne all offseason—but the timing reeks of panic. After getting bullied by the nerds up in Palo Alto, USC will visit Utah in the mountains for a primetime game on Friday night. The crowd will undoubtedly be smelling blood, and among major conference teams, the Utes’ defense is 11th in yards per play so far this young season. The party line on Donald has him in the fearless gunslinger mold—“confident, patient” said the Orange County Register; “stoic, confident” went the Los Angeles Times—which is good, because Helton is throwing him into a wolf den and asking him to claw his way back out.
If he can, the schedule eases up slightly in October, with three home games versus just one on the road, and none against currently ranked teams. But if Darnold looks like a freshman making his first road start and USC drops to 1-3, well... who knows. Browne seems to think he isn’t getting his job back, and he hasn’t been great by any stretch—he’s averaging a hair over eight yards per completion and has thrown as many interceptions (two) as touchdowns. But Browne isn’t, as Helton admits, USC’s sole problem. Against Stanford he made some throws that clearly showed why he was the nation’s top high school quarterback in 2013, one of which was a pro-level touch pass that was flat dropped by star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Perhaps the shift from Browne to Darnold was inevitable, and Helton—who is 1-4 since being named USC’s permanent head coach late last season—figured that he might as well rip the bandage off. But the Trojans are staring a six-loss season dead in the eyes, and the last time that happened they left their coach at the airport the following September.