Matt Barkley saw a lot of Carson Palmer when the Heisman Trophy winner played for USC in the early 2000s. Growing up in nearby Newport Beach, Barkley, now a junior quarterback for the Trojans, remembers Palmer’s 2002 season, the year he won the award while throwing for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns.
On Saturday, in front of a crowd of 63,707 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Barkley shattered the former Trojan signal caller’s single-game record for passing yards with 468 of his own. Along with four touchdown passes, Barkley’s record-setting display helped lead USC (4-1, 2-1) to a narrow 48-41 victory over Arizona just one week after the team’s first loss of the season at Arizona State.
“It’s crazy because I remember looking up to Carson Palmer and he’s one of my heroes,” Barkley said. “I did want to be in his shoes.”
The offensive outburst, the most points USC has scored in a game this season, was needed to stave off a Wildcats team (1-4, 0-3) that also moved the ball successfully, scoring four second-half touchdowns. Behind its own seasoned signal caller in senior Nick Foles, who completed 41-of-53 pass attempts, Arizona outscored USC 29-21 in the final two quarters.
“That’s a great team with some great receivers,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said of the Wildcats.
For the second week in a row, USC’s defense surrendered more than 40 points, allowing 554 yards of total offense before nearly relinquishing a late two-touchdown lead. The Trojans also allowed Arizona to convert 37 first downs, the most in school history.
“They went down the field a bit too easy in the second half,” Kiffin said. “We just need a full defensive game.”
Leading 48-34 with less than two minutes remaining in the game, USC opted to try and convert a fourth-and-one play from its 47-yard line, but Barkley’s pass to senior wide receivers Brandon Carswell was incomplete, giving the Wildcats, who scored six plays later on a four-yard touchdown pass from Foles to freshman wide receiver Austin Hills, a shorter field.
“You have the opportunity to put the game away,” Kiffin said of the decision not to punt. “We’re going to believe in our players.”
But in the first half, the Trojans defense, which had forced just three interceptions all season, looked slightly different, as evidenced by its two interceptions of Foles, who had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:0 prior to Saturday’s game.
With 7:19 remaining in the first quarter, junior safety T.J. McDonald intercepted Foles when a pass sailed over the middle of the field.
Minutes later, on the next Arizona drive after a 46-yard field goal from freshman kicker Andre Heidari gave USC a 10-0 lead, Foles was picked off by McDonald again.
“To get them early changed the momentum of the game,” McDonald said. “It pumped up the team and they were able to go put points on the board.”
Three plays later, Barkley connected with freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee on a 38-yard touchdown pass, ballooning USC’s lead to 17. The Trojans would go on to score again in the second half on another Barkley pass, his third of the game.
“They just sat back and gave us a lot of routes,” Barkley said. “And across the board, I had protection.”
The defense also limited Arizona to just two scores in the first half despite 227 yards of total offense.
“I was just happy with the turnovers,” Kiffin said. “It was good to see.”
But the offense, which finished just 18 yards shy of 600 total yards, outshined whatever noteworthy plays the defense made.
In addition to Barkley’s performance, sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods finished with 14 receptions for 255 yards and two touchdowns. Similarly, his high school teammate, freshman wideout Marqise Lee totaled 144 receiving yards and one touchdown on eight catches.
“[Barkley’s] putting the ball on the money, on point every time,” Woods said. “He’s making it really easy on us because he puts it right where it needs to be.”
Equally, Woods and Lee have made it easy on Barkley. Of his 32 completions, 22 went to Woods and Lee.
“I’ve played with him since high school, and it’s exciting to see him grow,” Woods said of Lee. “I’m real proud of him.”
Despite a young offensive line that looked particularly young a week ago in the Trojans’ 43-22 loss to Arizona State, Barkley was not sacked once against the Wildcats.
“Our line was a huge component because of the protection,” Barkley said of the unit, which on average is allowing less than one sack per game. “I didn’t get touched once, except when I rolled out of the pocket. They were huge.”
With the Trojans heading into a bye week before an Oct. 13 contest against California at AT&T Park in San Francisco, most players appear content with the win — at least for now.
“In a sense, it is what it is,” freshman linebacker Dion Bailey said in the moments following the game. “We’ll take our wins.”