LOS ANGELES — For NFL teams in need of a quarterback, Saturday’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was expected to be the marquee game of the college season: USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen, two of the the draft’s top prospects, on the same field on the same night.
And there were moments when the hype felt justified. Rosen, as he has done for three years, showed off his lightning-quick delivery and trademark ball placement, while Darnold found ways to conjure up positive gains when plays broke down.
But at other times, both players’ inability to consistently lead scoring drives made it fair to question how quickly their games will translate at the next level.
Ultimately, the game found a way to sum up both players’ careers: Rosen had the stats for UCLA; Darnold and the Trojans got the 28-23 win. That’s how both players will be remembered.
Since Rosen burst onto the scene with all the accolades as a true freshman in 2015, he has been viewed as an NFL quarterback biding his time in college and certainly looked the part Saturday. He completed 32 of 52 passes for 421 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
“He did some tremendous things, but just like every QB, there’s some moments he would like to take back,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “When you talk to Josh, he’ll probably talk about the missed opportunities and that’s what great performers do. He won’t talk about the 32 completions for 421 yards, but the one interception. It’s all about team and winning for him.”
It’s also why Rosen’s time at UCLA has been so unsatisfying.
For as good as he has been, the team success hasn’t followed. The Bruins’ best record during his three years was his first season: 8-5. And at the time it marked the program’s worst season in Mora’s four-year tenure.
Rosen’s presence on the roster has led to high preseason expectations the past two seasons, but the Bruins have finished well short of meeting them. That’s hardly Rosen’s fault — he was injured for half of the 2016 season, and the Bruins’ defense hasn’t given them much of a chance this year — but that’s how his time at UCLA will be defined. Quarterbacks like him come around only so often, and to have him for three years and accomplish absolutely nothing of significance is a waste.
He could still, technically, decide to come back for his senior year, but what would be the point?
Darnold, meanwhile, improved to 19-3 as starting quarterback. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 264 yards without a touchdown, threw an interception and ran for a score. Darnold, too, figures likely to depart for the NFL, but will do so with a Rose Bowl win on his résumé and possibly a conference title.
Rosen and Darnold will forever be linked — the result of sharing a position and a city — and it’s something they both seem to have an easy time understanding. A bitter rivalry never developed, instead a healthy appreciation for the other did.
“Sam’s awesome. We’re great friends,” Rosen said. “How it is with social media all the quarterbacks across the country kind of stay in relative touch. We do camps together here and there. There’s kind of a roundabout good luck texts every Saturday. It’s all good sportsmanship”
Added Darnold: “It’s awesome getting to battle a great player like Josh.”
USC’s win was essentially meaningless for the direction of its season — the Trojans (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) already booked their ticket to the Pac-12 championship game and are a nonfactor in the College Football Playoff discussion — but it means UCLA (5-6, 3-5) goes into next week’s game against Cal needing a win just to qualify for a low-level bowl.