For part of the 2009 season, Matt Barkley gave USC fans reasons to cheer.
There was the game-winning drive he led against Ohio State on the road. There was his three-touchdown pass performance that helped the Trojans top Oregon State.
But for other parts of the season, the true freshman quarterback gave the Trojan faithful many reasons to groan, namely because of inconsistent outings against Oregon, Stanford and Arizona.
Saturday night at the Emerald Bowl, Barkley stayed true to form this year and gave fans a little bit of both.
The boy-wonder that was at first paraded around as the best thing to hit college football since the forward pass — then swiftly swept under the rug when he showed his age — had his moments both spectacular and youthful in USC’s 24-13 win over Boston College at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
For the most part, Barkley was stellar, finishing the game 27-of-37 for 350 yards and three touchdowns (one rushing). But on more than a few occasions, like on his two interception throws, the 19-year-old showed that he could still be a teenager.
Barkley started fast, hitting on 12 of his first 13 passes and two quick touchdown passes to fullback Stanley Havili by the early portion of the second quarter. Barkley looked as confident and on-target as he had all season.
Then, coming out of the halftime, the freshman dropped back and glued his eyes to his intended receiver, telegraphing in an ill-advised pass that was intercepted on USC’s first play of the third quarter.
But it turned out to be one of the few lapses for Barkley Saturday. Although many USC fans turned on him just as quickly as they crowned him, he left no doubt that he was the right choice to be the Trojans’ quarterback of the present and the future.
Since USC finished the regular season 8-4, USC fans did what all fans do when things go wrong: they second-guessed. Barkley was the primary focus of the attack. I lost count of the number of times I overheard someone say that USC coach Pete Carroll’s decision to start the youngster was ludicrous, and backups Aaron Corp or Mitch Mustain should have been given the nod.
These opinions, as they always do, changed in accordance with which side USC ended up in the win-loss column that week. When USC won, Barkley was the hero, a man beyond his years, a true prodigy. When it lost, he was too young and not ready.
Let’s get this straight. Age by itself counts for very little. Experience, on the other hand, goes a long way.
For proof of this, look no further than the Boston College sideline at the Eagles’ quarterback. Like Barkley, Dave Shinskie is also a freshman at the helm of a Football Bowl Subdivision college football team.
The difference? Shinskie is 25.
Yet before the season, Shinskie had started the same number of college football games as Barkley: 0. And the two ended up with very similar statistics. Shinskie threw 14 touchdowns against 13 interceptions during the regular season, while Barkley threw an almost identical 13 and 13. Both led their teams to 8-4 records.
See how much of a difference six years makes.
The lesson here is that Barkley was the best option for USC this season despite his youth because in terms of experience, he was practically even with Corp and Mustain.
Corp took very limited snaps in his first two years and played pitiful in his only start against Washington. Even though Mustain started and won eight games as a freshman at Arkansas before he transferred to USC, something more must have been lacking for him to fall to third on the depth chart.
So although he has not been perfect, Barkley’s up-and-down play this season has come to symbolize the entire year for the Trojans as a whole. At times, it had you making a double take, unsure if what you just saw really happened. Yet at others, it had you throwing your hands up in disgust.
And the Emerald Bowl was no different. The Trojans were still only able to hold off an inferior Boston College team by 11 points, and it took a few big breaks and late into the fourth quarter to do so, but in the end, the Trojans got it done.
All in all, the sky did not fall and cause Armageddon at Heritage Hall this season. Sure, the team did not live up to unreasonable expectations and the true freshman could not match unfair hype.
But what Barkley gained in experience — a bowl game victory, hard-fought victories on the road and gut-checking losses in the Pac-10 — is going to go a long way in righting the USC ship that had briefly lost its way.