The crosstown rivalry between USC and UCLA splits Southern California and is always worth tuning in for. But this year’s battle is a little more interesting for those with no rooting interests. On one side, there’s a blue chip draft prospect at quarterback. On the other side, there’s another.
For fans of an NFL team in need of a new passer — particularly the ones at the top of the draft order — the matchup Saturday between UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold is a chance to watch two potential top-10 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft go head-to-head.
There’s no guarantee that Rosen, a true junior, or Darnold, a redshirt sophomore, will declare for the draft after the 2017 season. But both could go early in April, and that’s an opportunity that’s hard to pass up.
Darnold was already profiled in our “NFL fans should watch” series in October, to this time we’ll focus on the matchup of Rosen against the USC Trojans defense:
1. Rosen landed No. 1 in our latest mock draft
The latest mock draft from SB Nation’s Dan Kadar was based on the assumption that both Darnold and Rosen will enter the draft, along with Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. All four, as well as Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, went in the first 13 picks, but it was the UCLA quarterback in the No. 1 spot.
Kadar projected it would be the Cleveland Browns nabbing Rosen to replace DeShone Kizer, who has struggled during his rookie season:
Rosen can be a little haphazard in his play while under pressure, but his tools are No. 1 worthy. He’s got a strong arm and a rapid fire release.
There’s no perfect prospect on the level of Andrew Luck in the 2018 class, but there’s a group of promising quarterbacks who could populate the first round. Rosen may be right at the top.
2. Rosen is more polished than Darnold
There’s a good chance Darnold goes ahead of Rosen in April. In fact, you should probably expect it. In a survey of five NFL scouts done by Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network, all five said they preferred Darnold.
But the reasoning all seemed to center around intangibles, rather than Darnold’s actual skill set. Here are the thoughts of two of the five scouts:
"I'll take Darnold. Rosen's likely a better natural talent, but Sam just has that 'it' factor that can be so hard to find and quantify."
"They are both going to be good. Rosen is more polished and a finished product now, but I'm a Darnold guy. He (has) 'it'."
Another lauded Darnold’s ability to create in chaos, although Rosen showed that he can do the same when he led a crazy 34-point comeback against Texas A&M earlier in 2017.
The “it” factor might be what decides the difference between the two prospects, but the results Saturday could go a long way toward swaying that opinion in either direction.
The Trojans are huge favorites at home — where they’ve won 15 consecutive games — so if Rosen can pull off the upset in enemy territory, the scouts citing Darnold’s “it” factor might have no choice but to bump Rosen up a bit.
Yet Rosen’s polish and clean mechanics may make him stand out anyway. Quarterback coach Seth Galina broke down exactly what looks so right about the throwing motion of Rosen compared to Darnold and why that matters.
3. UCLA’s best shot at an upset is a shootout
The biggest problem for UCLA is its complete inability to stop the run, so that’s really not Rosen’s fault. On offense, the Bruins are No. 8 in the FBS in passing with 333 yards per game and average 35.2 points per game.
That could spell trouble for a USC defense that is No. 64 in points allowed and No. 79 in passing yards allowed. Just last week, the Trojans gave up 376 passing yards to Colorado — the most the Buffaloes have had all season.
While the Bruins will probably struggle to stop the opposing rushing attack, expect to see a ton of Rosen throwing the football Saturday to try and keep up.
4. Rosen has a unique, honest and divisive personality
Because he plays quarterback, Rosen’s personality and leadership skills are going to be under the microscope as he enters the NFL. It comes with the territory.
But unlike most quarterbacks who say the same “we just have to give 110 percent” soundbites in interviews, Rosen is much more honest and forthcoming than most. It makes people uncomfortable and might scare off NFL teams that are looking for a passer who won’t rock the boat.
Before the 2017 season, Rosen spoke frankly to Bleacher Report about the difficulties of being a student athlete:
Look, football and school don't go together. They just don't. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs. There are guys who have no business being in school, but they're here because this is the path to the NFL. There's no other way. Then there's the other side that says raise the SAT eligibility requirements. OK, raise the SAT requirement at Alabama and see what kind of team they have. You lose athletes and then the product on the field suffers.
There’s also the time he posted a photo on Instagram of himself golfing with a hat that said “F—- Trump.” And the time he “rearranged a neighbor's lawn ornaments in sexually suggestive positions.” And the time he put a hot tub in his freshman dorm, because there wasn’t any rule that said he couldn’t.
Even when he was a high school prospect, Rosen had public disagreements with Trent Dilfer at an Elite 11 camp and admitted, “I’m too confident for my own good sometimes.”
Some people will love his moxie and straightforward personality. Others will think it’s too much. But he’ll make you pay attention.
5. Rosen’s toughness was called into question this year
The UCLA quarterback exited a loss to Washington early with what looked to be a hand injury, and then sat out the following week against Utah with what turned out to be a concussion. When Rosen left the game vs. Washington, ESPN’s announcers in the booth — Brock Huard and Dave Wischusen — discussed it and seemed to question whether or not Rosen should’ve played through the pain.
UCLA head coach Jim L. Mora blasted Huard for the perceived slight and said, “It’s ludicrous that anyone would question Josh Rosen’s toughness,” without knowing the details of the injury.
In Jeremiah’s survey of NFL scouts, one said, “Rosen is tougher than he is given credit for.”
Rosen missed the second half of his sophomore season in 2016 after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury early in October.
He’s healthy again and that sets up one of the best quarterback matchups of the year, and one that NFL fans should pay attention to Saturday.