PALO ALTO, Calif. — The college education of JT Daniels ultimately looked like this: his bruised right (throwing) hand wrapped completely in a bag of ice as he searched for answers about USC’s inability to score a touchdown in his second career start.
In the quiet darkness behind Stanford Stadium, where team buses were idling just yards away, Daniels emerged from the locker room with a box of Mexican food tucked under his left arm to find a cluster of microphones waiting for him. His grizzled demeanor and firm self-confidence belied his lack of experience: This was all new to him.
The 17-3 loss at No. 9 Stanford left Daniels battered and beaten in a way that was likely foreign to him as someone who was so dominant in high school that he skipped his senior year to enroll at USC. In fact, Daniels hadn’t lost a football game since the California Southern Section Division 1 championship in December 2016.
“When you’re a young QB, there are going to be some tough lessons like this to learn from,” Trojans offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “But I told him to keep his head up. He should be in high school still and not on the road playing Stanford.”
Daniels’ college orientation will continue Saturday, when the No. 23 Trojans go on the road to face unranked Texas in a high-profile showdown somewhat diminished by both teams’ early losses.
But USC emerged from its defeat to Stanford, a Pac-12 rival that has won eight of their past 12 games, confident that it has someone who can guide it into the post-Sam Darnold Era.
“This is not the end of the world. The sky is not falling,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “It’s one game early in the season against a top-10 team. All our goals are still attainable.”
That optimism came from a familiar place for Troy. From Carson Palmer to Matt Leinart to Matt Barkley to Darnold, Daniels is merely the latest quarterback prodigy to inherit the burden of expectations that comes with being atop USC’s depth chart.
Daniels followed his surprisingly precocious debut (282 yards and a touchdown) against UNLV with his first brush with adversity in a Trojans uniform, going 16-of-34 for 215 yards with two interceptions and a lost fumble in his first college road game. He was sacked four times and under pressure most of the evening behind USC’s beat-up offensive line, and a hit by Stanford linebacker Joey Alfieri in the first quarter caused him to miss an offensive series.
It was Daniels’ quick return to the game, however, and his ability to play through a contusion — according to early X-rays — on his throwing hand that showed what glittery statistics and his blue-chip pedigree could not.
“You gain respect from your teammates,” Martin said. “We didn’t know if he was going to play again or not. They saw how it looked.”
Said Helton: “I thought he competed like a warrior.”
Warrior or Trojan or not, Daniels and USC were kept out of the end zone for the first time since an embarrassing 52-6 season-opening loss to Alabama in 2016. Stanford’s defense, though equal to the task for a top-10 team, is not of the caliber of the Crimson Tide.
“The biggest blame goes on me,” Daniels said. “Age is not an excuse, and neither is experience. If the coaches say I should start, then I need to get the job done.”
Wary of those reading too much into their inability to score, USC players and coaches emphasized that this loss was more about their failure to sustain their drives — the Trojans crossed midfield eight times and got into the red zone twice — while Stanford scored on all three of its trips into the red zone.
“I feel like it was more annoying,” Toa Lobendahn, a three-year starter at center for USC, said of the offense’s performance against Stanford. “It didn’t feel like a couple years ago against Bama, when we weren’t moving the ball at all.”
Helton and the Trojans will need Daniels to shake off that injury and grow up quickly because another loss, this time to an underwhelming Longhorns team under second-year head coach Tom Herman, could turn up the heat on a program that has gradually slipped from the ranks of the nation’s elite.
For USC, a defeat would mean its second 1-2 start in three seasons. Before that, USC hadn’t lost two of its first three games since Pete Carroll’s first season in 2001.
For the Longhorns, 1-2 has basically become an annual tradition: They’ve done that five of the past six seasons. Before this stretch, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Texas hadn’t gone 1-2 since Mack Brown’s first year in Austin in 1998.
Indeed, the times have changed at USC and Texas. Whereas this game would’ve been atop the marquee in previous seasons, this year it’s a battle of two struggling blue bloods hoping to turn things around.
With Daniels and the Trojans coming to Austin, Herman sees similarities to his situation the previous year, when then-freshman Sam Ehlinger led the Longhorns into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against fourth-ranked USC.
“Anytime you throw a true freshman in there,” Herman said, “you’re going to deal with some growing pains.”
Ehlinger and Texas played above their heads that day, pushing the Trojans into double overtime before Darnold bailed them out in a thrilling 27-24 victory that still seemed to announce the impending rise of Herman, Ehlinger and the Horns. But they stumbled to a 7-6 record last season, as Ehlinger battled a propensity for turnovers, injuries and then-sophomore Shane Buechele for time.
With Ehlinger a year older and more familiar with Herman’s offense, many were expecting a sophomore leap for him and the Horns. Those hopes were dampened in the opener against Maryland, a 34-29 loss in which Ehlinger threw for 263 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, including one late in the fourth quarter that thwarted a potential winning drive.
Through two games, including a sluggish 28-21 win over Tulsa last week, Ehlinger ranks 74th (out of 130 quarterbacks) in the country in QBR. That isn’t awful, but it’s certainly not the performance expected of a quarterback two years under the tutelage of Herman, who made his name coaching up the third-string quarterback at Ohio State en route to the 2014 national title.
“At the end of the day,” Herman told reporters Monday, “the expectations that are put on us from the outside are never going to meet or exceed the expectations that we put on ourselves.”
At USC, where the expectations are even higher for the quarterbacks, Helton knows there’s still more growing — but hopefully less pain — to go for Daniels.
“The quarterback is going to learn from the good times and the bad,” Helton said. “Every rep that he gets, he’s going to get better from it.”