In two of USC’s trips to the red zone at Washington State last Friday, it relied on Sam Darnold’s legs.
On a second down at the Cougars’ 13-yard line midway in the first quarter, Darnold dropped back to pass, then sidestepped a linebacker who ran toward him on a blitz, scurried toward the line of scrimmage, shed a potential tackle by a defensive lineman and charged forward for a 9-yard pickup.
The dizzying scramble wasn’t his only run. Darnold, on the next play, took the snap out of the shotgun, forewent a handoff to running back Stephen Carr and kept the football. Moving to his left, he made it into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown run.
Later, in the fourth quarter, the Trojans called for another quarterback keeper, and Darnold dashed across the goal line for a 2-yard touchdown.
As USC searches for ways to aid its ailing offense in recent weeks, Darnold’s running ability looked like one option.
“One of the things I think Sam does a great job with is the ability to create,” Coach Clay Helton said earlier this week.
Against Washington State, he ran nine times, equaling a career high, for 25 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
In college football, sacks are not separated from rushing statistics. Without his two sacks, Darnold totaled 46 rushing yards on seven carries, one of the Trojans’ more able running threats.
Four of those came when the play broke down, and he took off running.
“Instead of trying to force something, I thought he did a tremendous job of pulling the ball down and getting what was there,” Helton said.
But the Trojans also sought to involve Darnold as a runner in the red zone. Both of the quarterback keepers that resulted in touchdowns came on designed runs.
Tyson Helton, USC’s quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, said Washington State was often in a Cover 2 defense, where two safeties sit in a zone to cover both halves of the field in an effort to better defend against the pass. But he thought it also allowed Darnold to take advantage as a runner.
“You do that, you’re going to have some running lanes,” Tyson Helton said.
It presented an option to help the Trojans in the red zone, where they have struggled, converting 13 of their 21 trips inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns, a percentage that ranked 64th in the nation through five weeks.
USC’s staff is conscious of keeping Darnold healthy. Neither of his backups, redshirt freshman Matt Fink nor freshman Jack Sears, has taken a snap in a…