The Washington State Cougars host USC in a battle of unbeaten Pac-12 rivals on Friday. This Pac-12 After Dark matchup will be missed by the majority of the country due to its late start time, but even casual football fans should tune in if they want to see Sam Darnold and Luke Falk battle in one of the best quarterback matchups of the 2017 season.
Darnold and Falk: The Quarterback Matchup
Sam Darnold received a lot of praise by fans and the media heading into his sophomore season, but he hasn’t been able to replicate the success that he had as a freshman when he led USC to a dramatic Rose Bowl victory. But his team is undefeated and is in prime position to compete for a spot in the playoffs, which is all that matters. But the Heisman hopeful was dubbed as the future number one pick in next year’s NFL Draft, which is extremely premature. Darnold has two more years of eligibility remaining and has a lot of room to grow as a quarterback.
On the other side of the field, Washington State quarterback Luke Falk is putting together an impressive resume of his own. Although he doesn’t have the raw abilities and hype of Darnold, Falk is on his way to becoming the conference’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. He currently ranks third in both categories, and will finish first if he stays healthy and replicates his numbers that he put up as a sophomore and junior. Falk makes up for his lack of supreme arm talent with intelligence, accuracy, and experience. Although these two quarterbacks have different skill sets and career outlooks, they have a knack for putting their respective teams in the best possible position to win games.
The Next Level
The NFL Draft community sees a lot of potential in Sam Darnold. He took over a storied USC program as a freshman and salvaged their season that ultimately culminated in a Rose Bowl victory. Darnold was wise beyond his years, showing an ability to make throws that other freshman could only dream of. He threw for 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2016, and was expected to take his game to new heights as a sophomore. However, he’s already thrown seven interceptions this season. He’s improved his completion percentage this year, but throwing nine touchdowns and seven interceptions through four games wasn’t the start that Darnold and USC had in mind.
Although he’s been inconsistent, Darnold has been able to lead his team to victory in all four of their games. His gunslinger mentality can lead to turnovers, but it also leads to big plays. His trust in his arm won’t always yield positive results, but USC coaches know they have to take the good with the bad if they want to get the best out of Darnold. He has a big arm that they cannot afford to tame, although speeding up his delivery would help cut down on the interceptions. It’s hard to make such a major change during the season, so they’ll probably be forced to live with his elongated throwing motion. He’s one of the biggest boom-or-bust players in the country, and so far, Darnold has propelled USC into the championship picture.
Luke Falk has an NFL future in his own right, but it’s not projected to be as bright as Darnold’s future. Falk is a team-oriented quarterback who doesn’t care about the spotlight. He had a chance to turn pro last year, but decided to return for his senior season and compete for a Pac-12 championship. The Cougars quarterback is putting up insane numbers, but unlike all other Mike Leach quarterbacks, Falk has a skill-set that NFL teams are coveting. The former walk-on has not only earned his scholarship, he’s earned a place in the conversation about college football’s best quarterbacks.
Arm vs. Talent?
Falk struggled against Boise State in a game that he left due to an injury, but he returned back to his old form during their last two games. Falk is first in the nation with a completion percentage of 76.9 percent, and he’s attempted the fifth most passes. He’s built similarly to Darnold, but doesn’t have his elite arm. Falk plays in a gimmicky offense and completes a lot of short passes, but he’s done a great job of mastering the offense that Leach chooses to run.
Although past quarterbacks under Leach haven’t found NFL success, Falk has a chance to buck the trend. His arm talent isn’t on Darnold’s level, but it’s good enough that he’ll garner first round consideration during next year’s draft. Ultimately, Falk is projected to be a career backup, but he has enough arm strength to go along with his elite accuracy, decision making, and football intelligence that could allow him to develop into a starter.
Darnold and Falk couldn’t be any more different stylistically, but both have the ability to lead their team to victory against each other. Darnold’s elite arm talent could give the Cougars fits if he’s able to limit turnovers. Falk’s elite accuracy and anticipation could give the Trojans fits if he’s able to keep the defense honest with a few deep passes. Both have bright NFL futures ahead of them, but both are too focused on the tasks at hand to look that far into the future. This Pac-12 After Dark matchup might be tough to watch for people not living on the West Coast, but it’s worth staying up for to watch these two elite quarterbacks do battle in Pullman.