LOS ANGELES — After 13 consecutive victories, Sam Darnold had almost forgotten what it felt like to go back to work after a loss.
The Southern California quarterback has been reacquainted with the feeling now, but he doesn’t want to get used to it.
Darnold is back in practice with a renewed vigor this week after his imperfect performance in the No. 14 Trojans’ 30-27 loss at No. 11 Washington State last Friday.
While the Trojans had a short week of preparation for a game that ended with three starting offensive linemen sidelined by injuries, none of those significant factors is used as an excuse by Darnold or his teammates, whose national championship hopes took a blow on the Palouse.
“Every loss, to me, feels the same,” Darnold said. “It’s a terrible feeling, and one that I don’t want to feel ever again. … We’re just working twice as hard now to remain undefeated the rest of the season.”
USC (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12) has a prime chance to get back in its groove Saturday against struggling Oregon State (1-4, 0-2). The Trojans have won 12 straight at the Coliseum, and Darnold has never lost there as a starter.
Coach Clay Helton is pleased by the Trojans’ response to their first taste of real adversity in over a year, noting their businesslike return to practice this week. Although the past year had been almost uniformly positive for USC, Helton believes his players will be more resilient than past Trojans teams.
“We’re in a great situation right now,” Helton said. “The fact of the matter is we’re 4-1, and for the first time in a long time at the end of September, we control our own destiny. We’re not hoping for anybody else to win, or a game to go one way or the other. We have to go out and do our job, and every goal that we have out there is there.”
Indeed, the Trojans were 2-3 at this point last season. They lost three of their first four games before rolling off nine straight victories and a Rose Bowl win, followed by their 4-0 start this season with Darnold in masterful control of their offense.
But in his first loss since his debut start at Utah last year, Darnold was reminded just how much work he still must do before heading to the NFL as a probable high pick.
The junior went 15 of 29 for just 164 yards with an interception and no touchdowns at Washington State, failing to reach 200 yards passing for the first time in 15 career starts. While Darnold struggled with accuracy downfield, his receivers struggled to get open in the middle of the field, leading to a series of weak drives and an unimpressive finish before the Cougars’ fans stormed the field.
Darnold watched the film, noted the offense’s shortcomings and simply went back to work.
“Nothing changed,” Darnold said. “Coach Helton talked about it in a team meeting, just making sure that we don’t change ourselves. We just grow from what we learned in the film room, just like any other game, win or a loss. We don’t change anything we do after a loss like that.”
Darnold and his Trojans are following a seemingly inevitable pattern over the past decade at USC, where sky-high expectations are applied to any success — and followed by disappointment and letdown when those impossible expectations aren’t met.
After beginning this season as a high-profile Heisman Trophy candidate, Darnold still has obvious skill and remarkable ability. But with 1,389 yards passing in five games alongside nine touchdowns and eight interceptions, he isn’t standing out in the Heisman field.
Hype and perception are all out of Darnold’s control, and he professes no interest in it. He would rather work on perfecting his connections with his receivers in anticipation of a Pac-12 title run in the second half of the season.
“I haven’t really been on target, or on target as I would like to be, when it comes to deep balls outside,” Darnold said. “And then our receivers would say they haven’t made the plays they should make. So there’s a lot of improvement (to be made), but we’re definitely making strides in practice. … Teams are starting to force us to throw it outside a little bit, but we’re taking that as a challenge. … I’m expecting Oregon State to do the same thing, and I would if I was them as well.”