LOS ANGELES — Call it the panic reaction of a first-year head coach or a calculated gamble to shake up his team.
Either way, USC coach Clay Helton’s decision to swap starting quarterbacks three games into the season better work or his term as head coach might be shorter than either of his two predecessors.
Helton announced Sept. 19 that redshirt freshman Sam Darnold would start over redshirt junior Max Browne when the Trojans face Utah in Salt Lake City Sept. 23.
The two had battled for the starting quarterback job throughout spring practice and the first three weeks of summer camp before Helton chose the more experienced Browne over the more athletic and versatile Darnold two weeks before the Trojans opened the season against Alabama.
After a 1-2 start in which the Trojans have scored only 61 points (45 against Utah State alone), Helton pulled the plug on Browne and gave the job to Darnold.
Browne’s stats weren’t bad. He completed 55 of 87 passes, a 63.2 percentage rate, for 474 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
In limited playing time, Darnold completed 14 of 22 passes for a slightly better 63.6 completion percentage for 136 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
But Browne is a traditional drop-back pocket passer. Darnold ran a spread offense in high school and his highlight video package showed almost as many runs as pass completions. In other words, he can do things on offense that Browne can’t and the Trojans can’t afford another loss, although Utah is a lot closer to Stanford in ability than it is to Utah State.
The Trojans won four of their first seven games under Helton last season, but since he was given the permanent head coaching job after last year’s win over UCLA, the Trojans have lost four of five, making the boosters and alumni restless to say the least.
Whether the change at quarterback will make a difference remains to be seen. Since Pete Carroll left after the 2009 season, the Trojans have been an undisciplined, underachieving team that plays with a sense of entitlement and bravado they hasn’t earned.
The Trojans still get their share of blue-chip athletes. Browne was considered the best quarterback in the high school class of 2012. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Adoreé Jackson are considered two of the best at their positions in college football.
But the Trojans haven’t won a conference championship since Carroll left and a loss to Utah Sept. 24 would give them an 0-2 start in conference play this season.
Helton had to do something to shake things up in Troy. He can only hope Darnold can win some football games for him.
The Trojans game against Utah starts at 6 p.m. on Fox Sports One.
MISSING OFFENSE: Someone might want to check the team’s old facilities in St. Louis to see if that’s where the Rams offense is. After two games, the Rams have yet to find the end zone and have managed just nine points on three Greg Zuerlain field goals.
All three came Sept. 18 as the Rams celebrated their return to the Coliseum with a 9-3 win over the Seattle Seahawks, who have only managed 15 points in their first two games.
Head coach Jeff Fisher hasn’t announced a change at quarterback yet, but if the offense continues this way it won’t be long before first round draft pick Jared Goff is thrown into the fire.
Case Keenum hasn’t been terrible at quarterback, he just hasn’t been effective. And the offensive line has done a poor job of opening up running lanes for running back Todd Gurley.
Maybe it’s the caliber of defenses the Rams have been playing, although the Carolina Panthers ran up 45 points against the San Francisco 49ers a week after the Niners shut out the Rams.
The Rams play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sept. 25, a team that yielded 40 points to Arizona last week. We should have a better gauge on what kind of quarterback Keenum is going to be after this week. If he can’t find the end zone this week, it might be time to start Goff, even if the rookie doesn’t seem ready for the NFL.
GETTING CLOSE: By this time next week, the Dodgers should have clinched the National League West title and be resting it starters for the first round of the playoffs against the Washington Nationals.
After splitting the first two games of their series over the San Francisco Giants this week, the Dodgers are five games ahead of the Giants with 11 games to play. Four of the remaining 11 are against the Giants.
The Dodgers came from behind in the ninth inning Sept. 19 to defeat the Giants, 2-1, after being one-hit by Madison Bumgarner over seven innings. It was the 28th blown save of the year for the Giants bullpen, which is the biggest reason the Dodgers have almost clinched the Western Division.
The Dodgers still seem to baffle their fans with their inability to hit left-handed pitching. Fortunately, the Nationals only have one lefthander in their starting rotation, but if I was manager Dusty Baker I would start Gio Gonzalez in the opening game of the playoff series and bring him back in game five.
Gonzalez is only 11-10 on the season with a 4.48 earned run average, but the Dodgers can’t hit lefties.
The Dodgers are a left-handed dominated lineup. Chase Utley, Corey Seager, Adrian Gonzalez, Joc Pederson and Josh Reddick all hit left-handed. Catcher Yasmani Grandal is a switch hitter with more power from the left side.
You would expect those players to have more trouble hitting lefthanders, but the right-handed hitters in the Dodgers lineup don’t hit lefties well, either.
Manager Dave Roberts has done a good job juggling his lineup all year, but as the playoffs approach, he might want to consider finding the best eight players and sticking with them, no matter which side they hot from.
I’ll take my chances with Joc Pederson over Kike Hernandez in center field every day.
ALWAYS IN THE SHADOW: UCLA is always in the shadow of USC during football season and all the football talk this week has been about the quarterback change at USC.
UCLA has a big game this week, hosting Stanford Sept. 24 at 5 p.m. at the Rose Bowl.
Stanford is ranked seventh in the country and is coming off a 27-10 victory over the Trojans that wasn’t that close.
UCLA has to hope they cover Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey better than the Trojans did.
McCaffrey, who finished second in Heisman Trophy balloting last year, ran past two USC defenders and was uncovered when he caught a short pass and turned it into a 56-yard scoring play against the Trojans.
Last year against the Bruins, McCaffrey broke the school record for rushing yards in a game with 243 yards in the Cardinal’s 56-35 victory.
He played well in the Rose Bowl, too, 368 all-purpose yards in the Cardinal’s defeat over Iowa last New Year’s day.
A loss to Stanford would put the Bruins at 2-2 for the season, after consecutive wins against UNLV and BYU. Alphabet soup time is over for the Bruins.
Stanford is a quality opponent and a win would set the tone for a potentially good season for the Bruins.
The game will be televised on Channel 7.