Back in 2009, when then-USC coach Pete Carroll named Matt Barkley the Trojans’ starting quarterback — over Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain — his rationale behind handing the job to the wide-eyed freshman signal caller was simple.
“He has all the physical ability, he has the mentality and temperament to handle the position,” Carroll said.
Carroll opted to start an 18-year-old freshman from Newport Beach over Corp and Mustain, who had a combined five years of collegiate experience. It was a surprise. It was ridiculed at times. It led to a ho-hum 9-4 season.
But it’s paying off now.
Barkley, now a junior, has thrown for 892 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception through three games this season, putting him on pace for 36 touchdown tosses a year after throwing 26. His completion percentage is currently at 68.9 percent. And on Saturday, in the Trojans’ 38-17 rout over Syracuse, he looked as good as ever.
Against the Orange, he went 26-of-39 for 324 yards and five touchdowns, tying USC’s single-game mark for the third time in his career. All five of those touchdowns went to different receivers. Similarly, he connected with eight different wideouts. It was arguably his best performance to date. He was accurate. He was efficient. He was consistent.
In the first quarter, he hooked up with senior fullback Rhett Ellison on a five-yard swing pass for a score. In the second quarter, he found sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods open in the endzone for a 31-yard touchdown. In the third quarter, he found freshman wideout Marqise Lee streaking down the north Coliseum sidelines for a 43-yard touchdown, giving the Trojans a 21-point lead.
“He knows if [Woods] or another receiver is not open, he can come to me,” said Lee, who was playing in just his third college game. “We have that trust there.”
Two years ago, Carroll used every possible adjective to paint Barkley in a positive light. He called him “remarkable,” “extremely talented” and said great things were expected of him. At times, it seemed excessive, towing the line between confident and unrealistic, as the Trojans went on to lose four games, the most since 2001 at the time.
But now with 27 starts under his belt, he remains on track to live up to the billing, as evidenced by his display at the Coliseum Saturday night.
“He played well for us again,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said with a touch of brevity.
It hasn’t been easy being Matt Barkley, who has never exactly been dealt a favorable hand.
He was thrown into the fire as a freshman, subjected to a wide range of criticism that comes with the position.
He battled injuries, missing starts against Washington in 2009 and Notre Dame last season.
He has been forced to grow up fast, becoming the face of a program as a 19-year-old sophomore after it received the harshest NCAA-levied sanctions since the SMU death penalty in 1987.
He never had the chance to sit and wait. He never got to hold the clipboard. He never got to run the scout team during practices. His predecessors Mark Sanchez and John David Booty didn’t start full time until their fourth seasons with the program. Matt Leinart never attempted a pass until he was a redshirt sophomore.
Barkley’s second collegiate game took place at The Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio, against nationally ranked Ohio State. The ink was still drying on his signed national letter of intent. He had just attended commencement at Mater Dei. His graduation tassel was still close by.
The youth showed, at times, but if there was ever any doubt Carroll should have tabbed Barkley as the starter two years ago, that has slowly eroded.
Barkley has turned into arguably the best pure pro-level passer nationally, along with Stanford’s Andrew Luck, becoming a Heisman Trophy candidate as well. Not to mention Corp and Mustain went 0-2 as starters.
But if anything, two years of starting experience has prepared Barkley for a season like this. A season where, if the ball bounces right, USC could finish with at least 10 wins for the first time since 2008. A season where he could receive a wide number of postseason awards. A season where statistically, at least, could be on par with past Heisman winners Leinart and Carson Palmer.
“Having two years in the system helps a lot,” Barkley said when asked about his progression as a starter. “And our guys are really making me look good out there.”
He knows the experience has helped. He’s more confident, more accurate, more collected.
And although the Trojans can’t celebrate New Year’s in Pasadena, he knows he can bring a glimpse of the past back to USC — at least for now.
“It’s about time,” Barkley said Saturday of the Trojans’ blowout win. “It kind of felt like Trojan football again.”
The NFL can wait. A bowl game can wait. At 3-0, USC could have its best team in recent memory, and for Barkley, who has suddenly become one of the best signal callers in college football, that might be just good enough.
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