COLUMBUS, Ohio — Matt Barkley heard it all Saturday night, but it was the final sound that rang sweetest.
The thumping drumbeat of the Ohio State band and verbal assaults had pelted his eardrums all day. His ears were ringing and his receivers could hardly hear his instructions.
But the true freshman quarterback shook off the noise and the familiar scenario of a long field ahead to spark USC (2-0) on a 14-play, 86-yard drive that would prove to be the difference in the Trojans’ 18-15 comeback win against Ohio State (1-1) in Ohio Stadium.
USC’s offense had struggled all night after consistently being dealt bad starting field positions. But even after a sack and a penalty that put the Trojans at their own five- yard line on 2nd down and 19, Barkley had no doubts about what the final outcome would be.
“I knew our offense was going to score,” said Barkley, who finished 15 of 31 for 195 yards. “When we punched it in, it was good to hear that silence.”
Running back Joe McKnight was a frequent aid to his quarterback on the game’s defining drive. The junior from River Ridge, La., caught a pass from Barkley on an option route and weaved his way downfield for 21 yards. His three side-stepping runs later in the drive put the offense inside the Ohio State 10-yard line, where senior tailback Stafon Johnson later punched in a two-yard touchdown.
On the two-point conversion, McKnight caught a swing pass and barreled into the end zone to put USC up by three.
Despite mentioning that it was one of the few close contests he has experienced coaching college football, USC coach Pete Carroll mirrored his star quarterback’s confidence after the game.
“We didn’t think we were going to lose at any time,” Carroll said. “We just had to find our way.”
The Trojans rallied late in the first half to overcome a flat start, hitting a short field goal to tie the game at 10-10 heading into halftime. But USC’s errors continued to mount in the second half.
A snap to redshirt junior punter Billy O’Malley sailed over his outstretched arms and into the back of the end zone for a safety on USC’s second drive of the third quarter. The short field the Buckeyes started with on the next possession set them up for a 22-yard field goal, although the USC defense held its position on a goal line stance.
With the Trojans still down five points after two unsuccessful drives, Johnson’s dancing jaunt into the end zone where the majority of the USC fans were sitting provided the relief that the Trojans’ offense had been searching for all night.
Barkley was off the mark on several of his early throws, but all his teammates took out of the game was his last march.
Linebacker redshirt sophomore Chris Galippo ranked the performance among the best drives that former USC quarterbacks Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez had produced.
“I don’t know if any of them could have done it better,” Galippo said. “Matt really stepped up and proved he’s the man.”
The drive came in the face of a record crowd of more than 106,000 people who packed into the stadium for the primetime game. Ohio State’s band thumped The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” throughout the game as scarlet-clad fans bounced up and down.
But the Trojans joined in on the fun when the USC sideline also began to hop around to the song, which led the raucous crowd to respond with a wave of booing.
“It was 100 guys versus everybody in the world, it seemed like. I hope people don’t see that as disrespectful,” Carroll said. “We were just trying to have fun and keep the fires burning on our sideline. We needed every single guy jumping the whole time to do what we did today.”
A handful of coaches and players gave their own renditions of “Seven Nation Army” in the locker room after the game, with some just mimicking the beat. But as a song whose lyrics are centered around fighting back, it quickly became the team’s unofficial anthem for the night.
“It’s a win we’re going to cherish,” Carroll said, “because it was as difficult as it could get.”