Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Legend of Matt Barkley Begins

I have no real audience, so I am speaking only to you random people who just happened to come across this via a search engine and my kindhearted friends on Facebook who clicked on the link in my status updates. But I feel like this is necessary, if only because you same people might click on the link I have posted on the sidebar to the right, to the Sporting News' new boxing/MMA blog The Rumble, where I will be posting three times a week.

It's headed by experienced boxing writer Dave Larzelere, a presence on this here internet through his work at HBO Boxing, TSN, and his blog, No Mas. He's put together a nice roster of writers and I'm just grateful and excited he asked me to join. I've been waiting for an opportunity like this for some time now. We actually started last week, and while we have been experiencing some technical difficulties the past couple of days that have slowed our output, there is already some quality material up that should encourage you to become a regular trafficker.

I already posted here rather infrequently, and now it will become even more infrequent, but there are some things for which I must be on the record and last night's SC-OSU game is one of them.

The Trojans defeated the Buckeyes in Columbus Saturday night, in front of the largest crowd in the history of the Horseshoe and one of the most raucous fan bases you will ever hear. The final score was 18-15, USC embarking on a dramatic game-winning drive that we will one day remember as the beginning of true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley's legend. It was setting up that way the whole night: the Buckeyes were fired up following last season's thrashing at the hands of Southern Cal and were looking for revenge. Their defense played extremely well, thwarting USC's vaunted rushing attack about as well as it can be thwarted. Barkley was not playing well at all, a kid showing his inexperience in his first massive road game. But SC's defense was stout as well, ensuring that the Trojans would have a chance to win the game.

The plot was developed: High school phenom and true freshman starting quarterback for imperial USC goes to Columbus to take on #8 Ohio State in only his second game ever and first road outing. The place is jam-packed and deafening with noise. He struggles for the first 52 minutes before leading the Trojans to a come from behind victory with an epic six minute final drive.

I could see it coming. Pete Carroll has had some high profile quarterbacks come through his incredible football program over the past nine years - couple Heisman trophy winners, a few top-10 NFL draft picks - but Barkley may have arrived with the most expectations. Not right away, of course. Down the line. But an injury to redshirt sophomore Aaron Corp, the quarterback he was competing with for the starting job, nudged him into a historic position: the first true freshman signal caller to start an opener for the Trojans.

That happened last week, when he went 15-19 for 233 yards and a score in SC's 56-3 win over San Jose State. All things considered it was a fine performance, even against such wholly over-matched competition and while not really having to do anything. As I expressed to my barber Bernie, anyone could do what Barkley did last week. You'd have to be mentally challenged not to be able to hand off to that gifted plethora of running backs and make those simple passes to those big, talented receivers. Even when Barkley threw, it was the receivers who were doing all the work. He didn't have to make any plays. That's the way Carroll has always used his quarterbacks - for the most part, all he asks them to do is get the ball to the vast pool of playmakers that they have been surrounded with - but things have been super-simplified with this kid (and understandably so).

This Saturday those successes were few and far between. And to be accurate, that final drive was really a showcase of the Trojan ground game than it was anything else: the big boys up front who compose yet another world-class offensive line in the Carroll era and tailbacks Joe McKnight, who did the heavy lifting, and Stafon Johnson, who ran in the winning touchdown.

But Barkley made two key passes: one to McKnight and another to tight end Anthony McCoy to garner consecutive first downs. SC was backed up near their own end zone when the drive began, and he led them to victory while displaying striking composure. This kid looks like he came right from the beach and he is cool. There's just something about his calmness that makes it obvious why he is thought so special.

He will have many more special moments in his college career and beyond, but I have a feeling this will go down as the defining one.