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Sam's the man as Max is moved on

In one of those change-the-subject moments Monday for USC's 1-2 Trojans, Clay Helton made the tough call to replace Max Browne with Sam Darnold going into Game 4 at Utah Friday.

Life isn't always fair. Football surely isn't.

And while Max Browne "is not the reason we're 1-2," Clay Helton said Monday, nonetheless, the fourth-year quarterback and three-game starter is also not the man who will answer the bell in what is expected to be a cold, loud, drizzly and very unfriendly Salt Lake City on a short week Friday against a pass-rush-mad Utah team.

Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold will. Not that this is the biggest surprise in a season full of them, just maybe not this week. Although maybe we should have listened closer to a prophetic Darnold after Saturday's 27-10 loss at Stanford where USC scored its lone touchdown in two games against Power Five opponents.

Asked if he thought he'd win the starting spot, Sam said it wasn't up to him. "It's Coach's decision," he said of Helton. And starting on the plane ride back from Stanford when Helton said he began to review the three games this season, he ended up in a place where head coaches who survive at this level often do.

"You have to make some really tough decisions that hurt a member of your family," Clay said. This one did. And Max, who Clay could not compliment enough for the "way he's competed . . . honorably," a word Clay used on Sunday's conference call. Maybe that should have been the tipoff as to what was coming.

The stats don't completely make the case. Max was 55 of 87 for 474 yards with two TD and two INT and a QB efficiency rating of 111.97. Sam, meanwhile, coming in on short-yardage and red zone situations and in the fourth quarter of all three games, hit on 14 of 22 passes for 138 yards and two TD with one INT and a QB rating of 136.47.

But this wasn't about stats or numbers. Cynics will say it's about changing the subject. Or a lack of the loyalty that Max displayed hanging in here for three years behind Cody Kessler when he could have bolted. Clay said it was simply "the reality of football" the way this played out. "Max wasn't playing bad," Clay said, "the ball just wasn't getting into the end zone." Baseball teams change pitchers -- or managers. That's something Clay agreed with on his radio show later Monday. As a former quarterback himself and now a head coach, he agreed with the line that both get too much credit when they win and too much criticism when they lose.

"I've played both," Clay said. "That's the reality of football . . . It's a production-based business."

And one Max, in his second semester in a special MBA program in USC's Marshall School, showed he understands without sugar-coating his future. "I know how these things work," Max said. "Once the young guy goes, that's kind of it . . . I'll stay ready though."

He "owes it to these guys," Max said of his teammates for four years. But he also owes it to himself to make the best decision going forward. And after committing to stay at USC until he got his degree, which came before his first start, he said he immediately started "evaluating his options" which we have to conclude would almost certainly involve finding a program that needs a quarterback where he could transfer in the spring. Oregon on Line 2, Mr. Browne. Or something like that.

He said he knew this wasn't going to play out all that well. "Losing ball games isn't easy on anyone," he said, "but after watching the [Stanford] film, I was better than I thought."

So when Clay told him "face-to-face, man-to-man," Max said, the way a coach is supposed to do it, "I was surprised. He said the offense wasn't moving." And as he'd said in August when he named Max, Clay said it wouldn't be one of those game-to-game deals where the starter would have to be looking over his shoulder, it would be "over games, a series of games," before there might be a change. 

For Max, if he had to look back with regret or say "if only," it would be "the deep ball routes" that just missed. "Those would have changed things," he said, "made for a different vibe." But against Alabama and Stanford, the balls he completes in practice like the first throw today, a 45-yard over the top TD bomb against the first-team defense, didn't happen. And now he'll come out and be ready. He did not use the word "compete."

Although Sam did. "Max competed his butt off," Sam said, saying he plans for them "to stay really good friends, and if not, friends," from here on out. But this is his team now, he realized, when "I was with the ones and got a lot more reps. Other than that, I'm just going to do my best . . . and hope we get a W."

Against a blitzing Utah team with 15 sacks in its 3-0 start and in a "blacked-out" Rice-Eccles Stadium with a fired-up Friday night crowd, that's exactly what it will take. USC won't have to put any new packages in for Sam, Clay said. They're already in.

But his run-pass-option ability and quick arm and feet could allow the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder from San Clemente to make something out of nothing and do so on plays when they may not be there, a reality of this USC football team right now. That happens a lot.

Scrambling and throwing on the run may just be one of the necessities of life for a survivor back there with the O-line's spotty performance in the run game that was supposed to set up the pass. Now there's another runner in the backfield. He may not understand the offense the way Max did but he may be able to escape the trouble that comes his way more explosively. And explosive plays are what this USC team needs in the worst way.

But there is real heartache here. "I'd be lying if I didn't say it wasn't," Max said.

He wasn't alone. Asked if he'd made a mistake naming Max the starter before the season, Clay said absolutely not. "I'll never regret a decision to name Max," Clay said of "one of the classiest individuals I've ever coached."

Monday footnoted

Contrary to at least one report, freshman offensive tackle E.J. Price has not been kicked off the USC team nor was he headed home to Lawrenceville, Ga., after missing practice Monday. His status will be clarified by Tuesday, we're told . . . Junior safety John Plattenburg's return after a month of concussion protocol in which he made it out to watch practice just once, was back and in pads and working fully with the second team even though Clay said he'd get back gradually. Great to hear it. A starter all of last season, John is a terrific kid and could be a real boost to a mistake-prone secondary . . . For more play-by-play on today's practice, check out MONDAY UTAH WEEK GHOST NOTES.   

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