For better or for worse, USC’s season is over. Barring a miracle performance against a Notre Dame team currently headed for the College Football Playoff, the Trojans can’t hope to finish any better than 6-6 and have a good shot at losing both of their remaining games. A big reason why they may come up short this season has been the poor play of JT Daniels at quarterback. There was plenty of anticipation over who would start under center. As the season drew nearer, it was pretty clear that the coaching staff, led by head coach Clay Helton, were dead set on starting Daniels as a true freshman. The results have been worse than expected.
It’s hard to judge a player based solely off of one game, but in his lone start, Jack Sears put up a better performance than anything Daniels has done. Daniels hasn't had a single game where he’s posted a completion percentage of 70 percent or better. During the first half of Saturday's game against California it looked like he may have turned a corner — he was 15-of-20 — but he completed just six passes the rest of the way as USC blew its third double-digit lead of the season and ended up losing to the Golden Bears for the first time in 15 years.
Since a true freshman starting at USC has only happened one other time in school history, that’s really the only point of reference for Daniels’ current situation. Matt Barkley began his career with a 78.9 percent outing against San Jose State in 2009. After that, he didn’t post another game with 70 percent or better until the Emerald Nuts Bowl against Boston College. Unlike Daniels, Barkley had an eight-win campaign and a standout performance against Ohio State in the Horseshoe at Columbus. Daniels has no such outing and has really struggled to find any sort of rhythm in his first season.
After another poor performance against Cal, many are left wondering what Sears has to do in order to get a better look. After all, Nick Saban replaced Jalen Hurts with Tua Tagavailoa in the national championship game, but USC isn't even willing to give Sears a shot unless Daniels is injured. With each passing week, the decision to stick with the inexperienced Daniels looks more and more baffling. It’s not just the poor accuracy that sticks out when watching Daniels’ game. It’s much, much more than that.
For starters, Daniels has little compunction about throwing the ball into double- or triple-coverage. He did this on about seven different occasions on Saturday. Making matters worse is his inability to recognize pressure and deal with it, either by stepping up in the pocket or by rolling out and finding his receivers on the run. That’s something Sears did rather well in his start against Arizona State. On the year, Daniels has -122 rushing yards. He only has one game (Arizona) in which he finished with positive yards on the ground; and that was only two yards. By contrast, Barkley finished with -38 rushing yards for his entire freshman year on six more rushing attempts (45) than Daniels has right now (39).
To put a bow on all of this, there is a rather stunning split statistic showing Daniels in September and then his stats in October and November, thus far. Daniels took a step back in October and he has yet to regain his form. Whether it’s due to USC dialing back the playbook, running the ball more or Daniels has not made the necessary adjustments as teams have more and more game film to study is difficult to say. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But the stats are pretty alarming, given how much USC said of Daniels and his abilities.
USC’s struggles are apparent to anyone who watches the team play. The truly stunning thing about all of this is that USC hasn’t found a way to incorporate Sears into the offense the way they did with Matt Fink. Sears has showed he's a capable quarterback, good on the move, and judicious as a passer. He definitely gives the team a chance to win right now. Some fans have said that Daniels isn’t getting the protection he needs and the coaching staff isn’t helping him, but that only goes so far when you consider Sears played with the same offensive line and with the same coaches.
In his start against Arizona State, Sears completed 71.4 percent of his passes with no interceptions. He also managed 10 rushing yards on 10 attempts. In other words, he was able to stay ahead of the chains and did a good job recognizing pressure. Daniels has been sacked 18 times in 2018, which is why his rushing total has a minus in front of the number.
There are still two games to go. If USC wants to go bowling, one of these quarterbacks gives them a chance to win right now. Helton could very well be coaching for his future. If nothing else, start the guy that gives you a chance to keep your own job, right? It’s USC, so anything is on the table.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.