LOS ANGELES — Sam Darnold tried to thread the needle.
Late in the second quarter of USC’s 30-20 victory over Cal on Saturday, Darnold slung a pass toward receiver Deontay Burnett who was just shy of the end zone. Burnett had outrun Golden Bears cornerback Josh Drayden, by a couple yards, but as the pass hung in the air, Drayden recovered and jumped in front of Burnett to pick it off. The tight window closed.
“That’s me trying to force things,” Darnold said two days later.
It was the seventh interception in four games of this season for the Trojans’ third-year sophomore quarterback.
In comparison, in 13 games last season, including 10 as the starter, Darnold was picked off just nine times.
The growing interception tally from Darnold, who was considered the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, has raised eyebrows among some observers.
Is it a cause for concern?
“I’m just getting impatient,” Darnold said. “I’ve just got to let the game come to me and opportunities will present (themselves). It’s just a matter of when. And when they do present themselves, you gotta take advantage of it.”
Darnold, though, has also shown an inclination to take chances throughout his college career. His playmaking has propelled the Trojans to 13 consecutive wins. More turnovers can also arise as a result. Tyson Helton, USC’s quarterbacks coach, has cautioned the passer not to dwell on them.
“There’s going to be so many times where you go, ‘Wow, that’s a great play,’” Helton. “Every now and then, he’s going to have a forced throw. So you gotta take the good with the bad. I don’t preach it too much with him. If we throw an interception, we talk about it, we coach it, we move on, because if you press on it, you get it in his head. You don’t want that too happen.”
His interceptions have been a mixed bag, too.
When Darnold threw an interception in the waning seconds of the first half against Texas, his pass over the middle of the field bounced off the hands of receiver Jalen Green and into those of a defensive back. As it was scooped up, Greene covered his head in frustration.
Other times, Helton added, it might be all right to a force a throw when there’s less to lose.
In the second half against Stanford, Darnold faced a second-and-8 at the Cardinal’s 32-yard line when Darnold was picked off near the end zone. The Trojans were already leading and not quite in field-goal range.
“Nobody wants to throw an interception, but it’s…