Re-entering the Heisman Trophy race is more challenging for Matt Barkley now than in August, you might say.
Though setting a Pac-12 and program record for career touchdown passes in USC’s last matchup, a 44-point home win over Colorado, the senior quarterback faces a rather stiff challenge in the hope of becoming the eighth Trojan to win college football’s most prestigious and coveted individual award.
Two months ago, Barkley was pitted as the clear frontrunner for the Heisman, as USC stood atop the Associated Press preseason top 25 poll, and was expected to finish the season playing in the BCS national championship game.
But Barkley’s candidacy suffered a rather crushing blow by mid-September following a 21-14 loss at Stanford, the Trojans’ fourth consecutive defeat at the hands of the Cardinal and lone blemish this season.
And so his stock dropped, rather considerably.
“It was especially the style in which they lost,” said Chris Huston, a Heisman Trophy analyst for CBSSports.com and founder of Heismanpundit.com. “It wasn’t like a shootout where he was doing everything he could to keep his team in the game. It was a situation in which this mighty USC offense, with all this talent, was flummoxed.”
Against the Cardinal, Barkley finished 20 of 41 passing, throwing for 254 yards and two interceptions, two plays USC coach Lane Kiffin called afterward “probably two of his worst decisions” at any point during the last three years.
In the wake of the unexpected early season stumble in Palo Alto, USC has won four consecutive games, moving back into the top-10 of the polls, and so Barkley, who should own essentially every meaningful school passing record by the end of the season, is far from out of the running — at least according to the Trojans’ third-year coach.
Kiffin suggested during his post-practice news conference Tuesday that Barkley could play his way back into the race provided he performs in a similar fashion as he did against the Buffaloes last Saturday.
“Like I’ve said all along, the Heisman is a full body of work for the whole year,” Kiffin said. “Everyone wants to figure it out way early. There’s been a lot of Heisman runs, including here, late in the year.”
The senior signal caller was near-perfect versus Colorado, completing 19 of 20 passes for 298 yards and six touchdowns, equaling the school single-game touchdown mark for the fourth time in his career.
“We’ll wait and see,” added Kiffin. “Obviously, if he keeps playing the way he did, I think everybody will be happy.”
Through seven games, Barkley has posted similar numbers at this point one season ago, when he would eventually finish sixth in the voting, along with 11 first-place votes, narrowly missing out on a trip to New York City as one of five finalists.
This season, he’s thrown for 1,773 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, compared to the 2,006 yards, 19 touchdowns and four interceptions by this mark in 2011.
Asked Tuesday if he had thought about the race much recently, Barkley offered a simple response: “Nah, it’s not my job.”
But as Kiffin referenced, USC has had quarterbacks make a late push for the award, perhaps most evidenced by Carson Palmer during his Heisman-winning season in 2002. In Palmer’s final two games against rivals UCLA and Notre Dame, he threw for a total of 679 yards and eight touchdowns, catapulting him past Iowa’s Brad Banks.
And so Barkley, who at the moment sits behind favorites Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein and West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith in most Heisman rankings, could face a similar opportunity for late resume-boosting performances. Both No. 4 Oregon and the No. 5 Fighting Irish come to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum next month for primetime, nationally televised showdowns, as well as a potential Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30, an opportunity the Trojans didn’t have last season because of a postseason ban.
For the time being, USC has kept Barkley out in the weeks following the loss to Stanford. Entering the season, the school launched a mobile app titled “PROJECT TRO7AN,” playing off Barkley’s No. 7 jersey number, and has continued producing the online video series “Barkley Breakdown” and “Matt Versus.” Neither is technically Heisman promotional material, but instead ways to look at the team “through Matt’s eyes,” according to USC Sports Information Director Tim Tessalone.
Still, how Barkley finishes will likely speak the loudest, especially when it comes to wooing voters.
“You always have to just strike when the iron’s hot,” Tessalone said, “and it’s not hot quite yet.”
So, with at least five games remaining on the slate, the toughest tests await the Pac-12’s newest career leader in touchdown passes. In short, his team will have to win and he’ll have to play particularly well to boot.
As Huston explained, “Voters are waiting to see if USC is actually going to win anything with Matt Barkley, to give those numbers context and meaning. They’re impressed by the numbers but they want to see that these numbers led to X, Y and Z. If ‘SC wins out and does so in convincing fashion, those numbers start to look a lot better.”