LOS ANGELES -- Matt Barkley has always been a USC Trojan. It’s the school he wanted to go to and the team he wanted to play for since he was a young boy.
And we’ve seen him grow up before our eyes since he arrived on campus, just days removed from graduating from Mater Dei High School, weathering a storm of sanctions and bowl bans, and re-committing to the Trojans when even his coach thought he was ready to leave for the NFL.
Now, at the midway point of his final season at USC, he’s faced with what might be the toughest stretch of his career: a six-game gauntlet that will not only decide USC’s fate this season, but could define Barkley’s legacy at USC, as well.
The USC program might have fallen into the abyss during the period of stiff sanctions by the NCAA, but last year Barkley led a team that was unranked to a top-five finish by throwing for 23 touchdowns and just six interceptions his final six games. The finish was so impressive that when he decided to return to school for his senior season, the Trojans were quickly made a preseason No. 1, Barkley became a Heisman Trophy favorite and USC sold out all but one of its home games.
But there are no trophies for lifesavers at Heritage Hall. It’s why USC fans remember Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart one way and Rob Johnson and John David Booty another. At USC, your legacy is ultimately decided by titles.
There has always been another day or another year in Barkley’s USC journey. There has always been a “you’ll get them next week” or “you’ll get them next season” after a loss. But for the first time since he’s worn the cardinal and gold, those days are gone. That feeling of a never-ending tomorrow has vanished and the finality of it all is finally upon him.
That was never more evident than after losing to Stanford last month; Barkley hasn’t seemed the same since. USC is 5-1, and in the BCS top 10 for the first time since his freshman year, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to him. The indefatigable smile that seemed etched on his face the last three years has been missing, replaced by a kind of grim determination.
Is he still having fun? “That’s not the goal this year,” he said after Tuesday’s practice. “But I’m certainly having a good time. I’m making the most of it.
“I’d say, from now on, our goal is to win out the rest of the season."
Things haven’t exactly gone the way Barkley envisioned them when he announced he would be returning to school for his senior season last December. His center since high school, Khaled Holmes, is playing on one leg and doing his best to protect his best friend, with varying degrees of success. Receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, who seemed to have six yards of daylight between them and their nearest defenders every time they ran a route last season, are now lucky to get six inches of space on defenses geared to shut them down. And Barkley has had to endure a revolving door of players attempting to protect his blind side after left tackle Matt Kalil left for the NFL.
In what was supposed to be a storybook quarterback season, with hopes of a Heisman at the outset, Lane Kiffin has turned USC into a running team that relies on its defense. Barkley’s pass attempts have decreased every week since he threw a season-high 41 times at Stanford, and dipped to a season-low 20 attempts last week against Washington. USC has run more than they have passed in all but two games (Hawaii and Stanford) this season and the disparity was never wider than last week in Seattle when Kiffin called 40 runs plays to just 20 pass plays.
After the Washington game, Kiffin said he ran more because he didn’t want Barkley to get hit like he did against Stanford.
“I don’t know,” a frustrated Barkley said. “That’s between him and me and we’ll talk that over.”
Kiffin says the two have since resolved any tensions, but the moment felt emblematic. The popular assumption coming into this season was that Barkley and the Trojans would simply pick up right where they left off at the end of last season, when Barkley threw for 423 yards and six touchdowns in a 50-0 rout of UCLA. Outside of a blowout win in the season opener over Hawaii, nothing has come easy for Barkley and the Trojans’ offense so far this year.
For Barkley to navigate this moment and finish the final six games of this season the same way he finished the final six games of last season, he and Kiffin will have to get on the same page. They seemed completely in sync last season as Barkley brought the X’s and O’s in Kiffin’s playbook to life. This season, it’s as if the two aren’t even speaking the same language. There’s no doubt defenses are trying to stop Lee and Woods, but that doesn’t mean they should be able to. If future mock drafts are to be believed, Barkley, Woods and Lee will all be first-round picks at some point while the majority of the defensive backs they’re facing won’t.
There’s something to be said for taking what the defenses give you, but there’s also something to be said for simply going out and taking what you want when you’re the more talented team.
Kiffin believes things will change in the second half of the season with USC playing five of their last six games in Los Angeles, highlighted by season-defining games against Oregon, Notre Dame and UCLA. He said he plans on opening the playbook more and perhaps taking more chances than he has recently, knowing USC will have to score more than 24 points if they hope to beat Oregon this season.
“In his mind, I think it will probably change,” Barkley said. “I don’t know, but we better see some change.”
That change, should it come, will not only be evident in the box score and the scoreboard, but it will be visible on Barkley’s face on the sideline and in news conferences. Having fun might not have been Barkley’s goal this season, but when he starts having more of it on the field, the closer he will get to achieving his ultimate goals at the end of the season.