Matt Barkley has officially relinquished the title of freshman.
With the game on the line in just his second collegiate game, in front of perhaps the loudest crowd he will ever face, Barkley’s play was not that of a teenager.
His numbers weren’t spectacular. His missed opportunities were plenty. But for the defining drive that spanned just over six minutes at the end of the fourth quarter, a kid days removed from his 19th birthday stood up in front of 106,033 screaming fans and somehow wasn’t fazed.
With USC down 15-10 in the fourth quarter, the ear-splitting Ohio State crowd could taste the victory. The USC offense had been spotty all night. One more stall would have been the nail in the coffin for the Trojans.
Enter Barkley, a kid who didn’t know he was supposed to play one.
Cool as can be, Barkley led a 14-play, 86-yard drive that culminated in a two-yard Stafon Johnson touchdown run. The resulting sound was the best thing Barkley could have hoped for:
Was there ever any doubt? Not to this hotshot freshman.
“I knew our offense was going to score,” Barkley said.
Really? Because I’d wager that every USC fan was devouring their fingernails by that point in the game.
Until Barkley’s miraculous drive, the Buckeyes’ defense had been shutting down the Trojans all night. USC’s only touchdown was a gimme, set up by a Chris Galippo interception that he returned to the Ohio State two-yard line. The offense couldn’t seem to get anything going in the second half, finding itself continually stuffed drive after drive.
Before Barkley led them out of the darkness, the Trojans’ first four second-half drives broke down like this:
Bad snap over punter Billy O’Malley’s head, safety.
Eight plays, punt.
Then out of nowhere, Barkley orchestrated the game-winning drive with the poise and grace of a 10th-year senior.
When the Buckeyes blitzed, he made the right choice and took the sack. When their coverage held, he checked down to the right receiver. And when the crowd noise intensified, he brushed it off like he couldn’t hear it.
“We played through it,” Barkley said of the crowd, which was deafening at best. “The actual noise didn’t affect how we were going to play.”
In the huddle, he was a leader, his youth making no difference to the 10 pairs of eyes looking to him to lead them to a victory.
“Matt was the same person the whole game,” junior running back Joe McKnight said. “[He] never lost his composure, just kept coming in the huddle and calling plays.”
In an environment when most seasoned college quarterbacks would have folded, Barkley never looked shaken, never looked rattled. Even after a first-half interception, when he threw the ball across his body and it was picked off by Ohio State’s Ross Homan, Barkley just shook it off.
“He’s not an 18-year-old kid anymore,” McKnight said.
Right, he’s 19 now, but I don’t think that’s what McKnight meant.
“He stepped up to be a man,” McKnight continued. “[He] made big plays at big times and he’s going to take us to the promised land.”
Even though Barkley set foot on the USC campus as a student for the very first time eight months ago, this moment was not as outlandish to him as it seemed to the rest of us.
Being the starter, leading this team in the most hostile of environments, was just how he knew it would unfold.
“This is what it’s supposed to be,” he said. “This is what I came here for.”
Barkley does not seem to notice how different he is. The fact, however, is not lost on coach Pete Carroll.
“All we can tell you is the guy’s really special,” Carroll said. “He’s into it, he’s having fun, he’s not arrogant, he’s not cocky — he’s just a complete ball player.”
According to Carroll, there was not one particular moment when Barkley proved that he would be ready for situations of this magnitude. To the contrary, there just never was a moment that proved he wasn’t.
“There’s been no indication otherwise,” Carroll said. “I’m talking from spring football, from day one, for real he can handle it unlike anyone we’ve seen.”
Back in spring, Barkley was asked almost jokingly if he’d be confident starting against Ohio State. He was just as confident then as he is now, and now that it’s all come to pass, he recognized its dreamlike quality.
“It is kind of surreal but at the same time, it’s what I wanted, its what I’ve always wanted,” Barkley said.
Believe me kid, it’s surreal for everybody else too.
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