LOS ANGELES — At Utah, the quarterback situation is fluid. Tyler Huntley, the undisputed leader, is questionable for Saturday’s game at USC, thanks to a shoulder injury.
“Tyler is day-to-day,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said this week. “If he’s ready to play, he’ll play. If he’s not, he won’t.”
You don’t say.
Troy Williams, the backup, is coming off a poor performance, causing Whittingham to reopen the quarterback competition. Third-stringer Cooper Bateman — who has been unable to secure the starting spot at either Alabama or Utah — is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Troy is the starter right now, but if the opportunity came up to play, yeah, I’d be excited for sure,” Bateman said.
There are no such starter issues in LaLa Land. The QB is Sam Darnold, a Heisman candidate and projected No. 1 NFL draft choice.
“He’s fantastic. A terrific quarterback — among the best in the country,” said Whittingham. “He has the whole package, the whole skill set.”
In their sixth game of the season, the Utes will get their first test against a premier quarterback. Last year Darnold threw for 253 yards and no touchdowns in a loss to the Utes. This year he has been good — the Trojans are 5-1 — but below last year’s level, having thrown 12 touchdowns but nine interceptions. His 143.2 quarterback rating is well below last year’s 161.1.
Once upon a time, the Utes had designs on Darnold and offered a scholarship when he was a high school sophomore. Whittingham claims he was the first coach to make Darnold an offer. But that was when Utah was fairly new to the Pac-12. Once USC entered the picture, reality set in.
In the here and now, the Utes have to figure out how to contain Darnold. Though he has been less effective this year, his skills have not diminished. Later this season will come Washington State’s Luke Falk, Washington’s Jake Browning and UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
“Now you’re getting into some legit NFL (level) quarterbacks that you’re going up against, and (Darnold) is,” said Ute defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “He’s got such a zip on his football, he’s a smart player, and he can run the ball, so he’ll be a really good test for us.”
Good as he is, Darnold apparently still lives on Planet Earth. He threw two interceptions in each of his first three games, then one apiece in the next three outings. His nine interceptions are as many as he had all last year.
Still, this is the quarterback that vaulted himself to the top of the preseason Heisman list with his last-minute execution in the Rose Bowl. Whittingham warns that “as defensive coaches, you’ve got to decide who you’ve got to take away and how to take that away, and that decision is made every week; who the playmakers are, and who we are not going to let beat us.”
Put Darnold at the top of his list.
The Utes are 41st in pass defense, allowing a respectable 205 yards a game. Daronld is averaging 284 passing yards. Despite going for 316 yards against Oregon State, he also had an interception and a fumble.
"I think I’m playing the same exact way as I was last year,” Darnold told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve just got to continue to improve and hopefully one game it will click.”
For the Utes of 2017, Saturday will be uncharted territory. It will be the first serious test for a defensive backfield that was mostly new this season. Major pressure from the defensive line can help alleviate that.
“It makes for some non-boring weekends,” Scalley said. “It’s Pac-12, so it’s all about matchups. You see teams beat other teams and it’s like, ‘How did they do that?’ We’ve got some really good coaches in this league and some really good players ... so there’s not a lot of sleep (for coaches).”
In other words, there’s no sleeping on Darnold.