After a first quarter that was marred by offensive mistakes, Matt Barkley is still smiling.
The disappointment of two fumbles by his teammates is not weighing on his shoulders. The challenge of being the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for a top-five team also seems distant.
Instead, Barkley is living in the moment.
“On one of our first drives in the second quarter, he walks out and says to me, ‘Isn’t this fun?’” said redshirt junior wide receiver Damian Williams. “I looked back at him and said, ‘Yeah, for you it should be a lot of fun.’”
Saturday’s game became a lot more fun for Barkley after his conversation with Williams. Barkley and the rest of the Trojan offense overcame a sluggish start to score eight unanswered touchdowns to route San Jose State, 56-3, at the Coliseum.
In his much-anticipated debut, Barkley proved up to the task of guiding the Trojans’ offense, completing 15 of 19 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown.
The Trojans emphasized short passes and a sturdy running game to take the pressure off Barkley in his first game. But Barkley’s accomplishments weren’t lost on USC coach Pete Carroll.
“Call him an outlier or whatever, but this kid isn’t normal,” Carroll said. “But who wants to be normal anyway?”
Part of what put Barkley in the position to be the first true freshman ever to start an opener for USC was his confidence in himself. That poise was needed early when the Trojans’ first five drives went awry and USC found itself down 3-0 at the end of the first quarter.
“Things can get whacked out when you don’t get off to a good start, but it wasn’t a big deal to him at all,” Carroll said.
Barkley’s composure helped lead the Trojans to touchdowns on their next six drives, although the team leaned heavily on the running game. In all, 342 of USC’s 620 yards came on the ground.
One of the many luxuries that the 19-year-old quarterback has been afforded is a running back rotation that is long on experience and talent.
Junior Joe McKnight shouldered the load early and perhaps provided the game’s highlight with a weaving 54-yard jaunt that culminated with a flip into the end zone. But senior Stafon Johnson’s two short touchdown runs and redshirt junior Allen Bradford’s 43-yard scamper into the end zone also helped take the focus off the man behind center.
The offense’s performance in the final three quarters helped reaffirm that Barkley doesn’t need to be the offense’s lone catalyst. Williams, who finished with three catches and 67 yards, and senior tight end Anthony McCoy were two of Barkley’s most frequent targets, often on short routes that minimized risk.
“I think this is the ideal situation for any quarterback,” Williams said. “For Matt, I think it helps his comfort level tremendously. He’s so poised that he just feels comfortable out there. I think that’s because he knows he has a veteran group around him.”
Barkley also found small triumphs in showing his patience. Learning to avoid forced throws and turnovers has been one of the hardest parts of the learning curve for him, but his performance Saturday displayed a shift in his mentality.
“It was a little weird to make that first throw away, but I would have rather had that than a pick,” Barkley said.
Said Carroll: “He almost could have been perfect.”
Although Barkley has had to learn to adapt to the offense, the unit also appears to be taking on some of the characteristics of its new leader. The emotionally charged Mark Sanchez often ran hot and cold last year, as the fiery signal-caller was often seen running down field after big plays and jumping into the air in celebration after touchdowns.
But save for a few moments on Saturday, Barkley was quiet and composed.
The level-headed Barkley was well aware of his leadership style, as well as its advantages and drawbacks.
“I think it might go both ways. I don’t really get nervous,” said Barkley, brushing aside questions of first-game jitters. “But at the same time, I don’t get super pumped up and run downfield pumping my fists. That’s just not me.”
In all, Carroll said he couldn’t expect more from his quarterback in his first test at the Coliseum.
“He absolutely handled this. It was no big deal for him,” Carroll said. “There are going to be some hard times, but we know he’ll have a stellar response.”