By now, Sam Darnold understands the deal. When he stands outside USC’s locker room each week to face reporters, he can sense what people will be saying about him on the radio, the cable sports networks and the Internet all week.

This is no longer last season, when Darnold was the freshman savior who never had an off game. There have been games when he has struggled. There have been games when USC has struggled. And he knows some people will blame him.

When Darnold stood outside USC’s locker room Saturday after a win over Utah, he was smiling. He’d been credited with three fumbles, but he’d erased the pain of that with a furious second-half comeback. He’d also erased at least two weeks of stress and frustration.

"After the second half there was a lot of relief,” Darnold said. “Just knowing that we could find a rhythm. And that we were back to playing the ball that we're used to."

For the first time since Week 2 against Stanford, Darnold looked as he did a season ago. If USC is to defeat Notre Dame on Saturday, he understands that he will probably have to play that way for the entire game.

Many teammates say they haven’t detected a change in Darnold from last season’s heady run to this season of weighty expectations. But those who live with him have sensed how the responsibility has affected him.