In a matchup of potential top picks in the 2018 NFL draft, USC's Sam Darnold led his team past UCLA and Josh Rosen in the Trojans' 28-23 victory on Saturday.
Rosen won the statistical battle against Darnold. The Bruins signal-caller went 32-of-52 for 421 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. USC's star countered that by going 17-of-28 for 264 yards with one rushing touchdown and one interception.
One reason for Darnold's output is USC made a concerted effort to focus on the running game, racking up 153 yards on 41 carries and three of their four touchdowns to take advantage of a Bruins defense that entered Saturday ranked last in the FBS with 302.3 yards allowed per game on the ground.
Despite that shortcoming on UCLA's side of things, both defenses played well enough to keep the score from getting out of hand.
Darnold and Rosen still have approximately three months to decide if they are going to turn pro, but this marquee matchup gave NFL scouts a firsthand look at how much their skills have grown this season and what they still have to work on.
Will Manso of WPLG 10 in South Florida shared the thoughts of many NFL fans as they prepared to watch this quarterback battle:
Will Manso @WillManso
Darnold vs Rosen. Giants future QB research begins. https://t.co/qR3NLTc4CQ2017-11-19 01:27:00
The New York Giants are a good team to bring up, especially since general manager Jerry Reese was in attendance at the Los Angeles Coliseum presumably to see players from both sides, including Rosen and Darnold.
Per Paolo Uggetti of The Ringer, the quarterback battle was so big that it even generated scouts from outside of the NFL:
Paolo Uggetti @PaoloUggetti
There are 20 credentialed NFL scouts at the Coliseum, including a CFL team (God bless them) for Darnold-Rosen tonight. https://t.co/7XEgEgDgQY2017-11-18 23:49:56
Jim Kelly and Steve Young started their Hall of Fame careers in the USFL, so credit the CFL scout for at least trying to take a shot.
Both quarterbacks have shown some inconsistency this season, particularly in the turnover department. Darnold has given the ball away 18 times in 12 games, while Rosen had a four-game stretch from Sept. 16 to Oct. 14 with eight interceptions.
That came to pass again on Saturday night. Darnold forced a throw into the end zone on 4th-and-8 late in the second quarter that was picked off by UCLA safety Jaleel Wadood.
B/R's Ian Wharton highlighted Darnold's turnover woes as one reason he should consider returning to USC next year:
Ian Wharton @NFLFilmStudy
All I can think about is how 5 execs talked about how Darnold has "it". He's a natural playmaker at the position, but I hope he goes back to clean this up. https://t.co/mEu570Ek4H2017-11-19 03:40:10
Rosen made a huge mistake in the third quarter, getting picked off by Marvell Tell III when throwing into double coverage after the Bruins got down to USC's 14-yard line while trailing 14-7.
Even with those miscues, there were positives taken away from this game for each quarterback.
NFL Network's Bucky Brooks painted a picture of the differences between Rosen and Darnold as prospects:
Bucky Brooks @BuckyBrooks
Tonight you're seeing the main difference between the Top 2 QBs. Rosen is a scripted playmaker w/A+ arm talent. Darnold is an improvisational wizard capable of making plays with his arm or legs.. #USCvsUCLA2017-11-19 02:24:39
Rosen showed off that arm talent and stick-to-the-script talent while also getting a little lucky on this 43-yard throw to Jordan Lasley in the fourth quarter:
UCLA Football @UCLAFootball
👀 that catch by Lasley. #BeatSC | #GoBruins https://t.co/G7kOr5AAc22017-11-19 04:22:24
Lasley was UCLA's go-to option all game, finishing with 10 receptions for 204 yards and catching each of Rosen's three touchdown passes. It was critical for the Bruins to have their passing game working, because USC's defense held UCLA's running game to 80 yards on 31 carries.
Watching that throw to Lasley, NFL Draft Scout's Dane Brugler noted Rosen's flaws don't mask his ability to attack the middle of the field:
Dane Brugler @dpbrugler
I have several concerns w/ Rosen, but he is also one of the best MOF passers I've scouted. Makes it look easy.2017-11-19 03:47:11
Brooks did offer a unique assessment of Rosen as an NFL talent and an athlete that could help his prospects heading into the professional ranks:
Bucky Brooks @BuckyBrooks
Let me correct my previous tweet.. I'm not overstating Rosen's talent when I suggest that he's one of the best pure passers that I've seen in person. He has a gift that few QBs possess2017-11-19 01:36:37
Bucky Brooks @BuckyBrooks
Rosen gets miscast as a non-athlete but he ranked as a Top 10 junior tennis player as a kid. He shows good lateral quickness and movement skills within the pocket. Tennis background certainly helped develop those traits. (Just like Drew Brees)2017-11-19 01:55:20
With so many NFL eyes locked on Rosen and Darnold, teams have their opinion on who is the better prospect.
Per NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah, a poll of five different NFL team executives came back unanimous in preferring Darnold over Rosen as a prospect.
"Rosen is tougher than he is given credit for," one executive said. "Sam just has a little more savvy and feel for the position to me. [Darnold has] more ability to make a crazy, improbable kind of play than Josh, while still being a highly skilled passer. [I] like both of them, but I'd take Sam if in position to choose one."
B/R NFL draft expert Matt Miller agrees, having Darnold as his No. 2 overall prospect and Rosen at No. 6.
If USC fans get their way, based on this reaction after the game, Darnold will make NFL teams wait until 2019 before deciding if they want to draft him:
Reign of Troy @ReignofTroy
Hearty chant of “one more year” before Sam Darnold went up to lead the band. https://t.co/nthUeD7hxd2017-11-19 04:58:07
Rosen and Darnold did engage in a little game of one-upmanship that happened late in the third quarter. Darnold put USC up 21-7 with a one-yard touchdown run. Rosen immediately responded by leading the Bruins on a 79-yard touchdown drive that was capped off by his nine-yard score to Lasley.
With Rosen outperforming Darnold overall, USC's star quarterback kicked his game into second gear on the decisive 10-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that ended with 5:19 remaining. He threw for 54 yards on just three completions, letting Ronald Jones II finish it off with a two-yard run for the score and a 28-17 lead.
During USC's four-game winning streak, Jones has been unstoppable. He's run for at least 100 yards in each of these games, including 122 against UCLA, and is making his own case to be a top draft pick in 2018.
Dylan DeSimone wasn't afraid to put Jones' pro potential in the same class as those of other elite running backs:
Dylan DeSimone @DylanADeSimone
I’ll be totally honest, I’m not so sure Ronald Jones or Derrius Guice don’t have better pro careers than Barkley.2017-11-19 03:44:36
This year started with the brightest spotlight shining on Darnold and Rosen because of their potential heading into the NFL. Both of them have had plenty of strong moments now that the season is nearly over, but other stars have emerged to support their teams.
In a game built around the dominant narrative of quarterback stats, Lasley and Jones carried a heavy load for UCLA and USC on Saturday.
Darnold, Jones and the Trojans got the last laugh with the victory and a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 1.