Los Angeles — Tim Lester is among the thousands of football men who became big fans of Sam Darnold last season.
Just 11 days after Darnold’s 453-yard, five-touchdown performance for Southern California in the last Rose Bowl, Lester got the head coaching job at Western Michigan — and Darnold became his first problem.
The No. 4 Trojans return from their Pasadena victory over Penn State to open a season of enormous expectations Saturday at the Coliseum against Lester’s Broncos.
Darnold is back for his first full season as USC’s starting quarterback, with the Heisman Trophy and the Pac-12 title squarely in the sights of the gifted passer. Lester won’t be surprised if Darnold fulfills his enormous potential, but the former Western Michigan quarterback will do his best to delay that process by a week.
“I’ve always liked Sam, watching him as a guy who loves to watch quarterbacks play,” Lester said. “When they won the Rose Bowl and he walked off to the sideline like, ‘Ho hum,’ like it was just another day at the office, I already liked him. I loved him from that moment. I just liked the way he handled that situation. Little did I know we’d be playing him in eight months.”
A year after the Trojans began their season with a thrashing from Alabama and ended it with nine consecutive wins, they’ve taken on another significant challenge in their opener.
Western Michigan has 15 starters returning from the best season in school history, which included 13 victories and a Cotton Bowl appearance. But the Broncos also are rebuilding after the departures of head coach P.J. Fleck, longtime starting quarterback Zach Terrell and star receiver Corey Davis.
“They’re going to be a big challenge, even with the guys who left,” USC cornerback Iman Marshall said. “We’re going to be ready for a team that won 13 games last year.”