Pac-12: John David Booty
One of the big questions for the 2013 NFL draft this week is the fate of Matt Barkley. Will he still get picked in the first round or will his stock continue to tumble?
Barkley seemed to -- finally? -- reveal some frustrations this week in a series of interviews in which he questioned coach Lane Kiffin's play-calling in 2012.
See here. And here.
But he wasn't the only former Trojan making news.
Mark Sanchez spoke up about the New York Jets acquiring Tim Tebow last year, and the media circus that the organization seemed to embrace. That, of course, created a new, if more modulated, media circus.
That wasn't the oddest bit of "news."
Former USC quarterback Mitch Mustain, who backed up Sanchez and Barkley after transferring from Arkansas, is the subject of a new documentary. It's narrated by former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson, which adds to a slightly strange texture in itself.
What's it about? Well, it's called "The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain," which strikes me as a bit melodramatic. Mustain, who had an undeniably live arm, had one problem: His ability to select football programs.
When Mustain decided to leave Arkansas, where he was mismatched with head coach Houston Nutt, he could have become the starter for about 100 or so teams. But he chose USC, which simply had better quarterbacks on hand. End of story, at least on the USC end.
The Arkansas stuff, however, is fairly rich.
Meanwhile, Matt Leinart is a free agent, Carson Palmer signed with Arizona -- perhaps to be closer to the Pac-12 blog -- Matt Cassel is with the Minnesota Vikings, Aaron Corp is on the Buffalo Bills roster and John David Booty is out of the league.
Not many schools can list so many NFL QBs, but that operates as a negative when the success rate is so low.
The cumulative affect of all this mediocrity and odd drama -- fair or unfair -- is freight for Barkley.
His draft stock is not just about a disappointing season and over-heated questions about his arm strength, which is certainly NFL-adequate. It's guilt by association: USC QBs and their recent history in the NFL is pretty lousy.
USC's QB past shouldn't mean that much. Barkley should be evaluated, positively or negatively, on what he has done, who he is and his potential. But that dubious lineage will make more than a few NFL GMs skittish.
But all it takes is for Barkley to end up back in the first round. We shall see.
The Ducks have lost games under Kelly, six in three seasons. But each loss was to a high-quality foe. The only unranked team that beat Kelly was Stanford in 2009, a squad that featured Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart and was ranked the next week after beating the Ducks.
Before losing to USC on Nov. 19, Oregon had won 21 consecutive games in Autzen Stadium, then the longest home winning streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Ducks also had won 19 consecutive conference games, then the second-longest such winning streak in FBS behind TCU.
So it's not much of a surprise that Oregon is a 31-point favorite against UCLA in the first Pac-12 championship game Friday. The Bruins also, by the way, fired coach Rick Neuheisel this week, so the negative momentum with the program is fairly strong.
Our point: If Oregon were to lose to UCLA, and yield a spot in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio to a 7-6 team, it would rate as an upset of monumental proportions. Think Stanford over USC or Appalachian State over Michigan, both in 2007.
But those were games in which the Trojans and Wolverines obviously -- and not without justification -- overlooked their foes. Those were early-season matchups without clear stakes and with zero pregame buzz. The Ducks, who celebrate the steadiness of their weekly preparation, believing every game is a Super Bowl, are surely aware a win means Rose Bowl and a loss means Valero Alamo Bowl. It's that simple.
So there would be grounds to call a UCLA win, with Neuheisel on the sideline for the final time, one of the biggest in college football history.
We laid out that lengthy introduction because now we'll ask a simple but impossible question: How? How can UCLA win this game?
The first thing is obvious: turnovers. That's often the first place to look. If the Ducks were to, say, give the ball away four or five times and the Bruins were to end up with zero giveaways, that would bolster the Bruins' cause significantly. Recall USC QB John David Booty heaving four interceptions against the Cardinal in 2007, which made things easier for a 41-point underdog.
And all turnovers are not equal. A pick-six when the opposing offense is in the red zone can transform a game. Ask Notre Dame about that 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown that South Florida got with the Irish on its 1-yard line.
But Ducks gifts to the Bruins are obvious as a recipe for an upset and would be out of character for a team that has turned the ball over only 16 times, second fewest in the conference behind Stanford, which has 15.
In terms of X's and O's, the Bruins are going to have to take some chances on offense. They like to run the ball and have done it fairly well this season out of their pistol formation, but they are going to have to get some big plays downfield in the passing game. A 76-yard TD pass was probably the key play of the Bruins' surprising win over Arizona State.
That said, the Bruins also will want to play keep-away. Sure, Oregon doesn't care about time of possession. But UCLA should not snap the ball with 15 seconds left on the play clock. The Bruins want to minimize the Ducks' touches.
"If you are talking to your offensive unit, you've got to treat it like tennis," Neuheisel said. "You've got your serve, and you better hold it. You've got to go down and put points on the board."
Then there's special teams. The Bruins need to win that battle. They certainly can't let the Ducks get big plays on returns from De'Anthony Thomas. They can't miss field goals. They need punter Jeff Locke to pin the Ducks as far away from the end zone as possible. UCLA needs a short field for its limited offense and a long field for Oregon's explosive one.
As for the Bruins' defense, it needs to be opportunistic and physical. This term has become a cliché for Ducks opponents, but it's that way because it's true: gap integrity. The Bruins' front seven needs to maintain its assigned gaps and not get distracted by Oregon's spread-option misdirection.
"You have to be very mindful of assignments and you have to be mindful of pace," Neuheisel said.
Third down also will be key, although Oregon is rarely afraid of going for it on fourth down. The Bruins need to find ways to stay on the field on offense and get off the field on defense. That's obvious, yes, but it also speaks to the best way to prevent the Ducks' up-tempo pace from exhausting a defense.
In the end, it's simple: UCLA needs to play its absolute best, and Oregon needs to lay an egg.
There is no reason to believe that will happen, even if the Bruins are inspired to win one for the old Rickster.
But they still are going to roll the ball out there Friday and see what happens. Stranger things have occurred, after all. Not many, but some.
Last fall, there was uncertainty at Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon.
At the end of the 2010 season, it looked like there would be plenty of ongoing quarterback intrigue. Arizona State was expected to feature another showdown with Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler. California was completely wide open with the departure of Kevin Riley. There was a new coach at Colorado, Jon Embree, who said every job was open. UCLA clearly had no clear No. 1. Washington had to replace Jake Locker.
But most of the mysteries were solved by the end of spring practices.
Threet was forced to retire because of multiple concussions, thereby handing the job to Osweiler. Cal coach Jeff Tedford surprised a few folks when he announced Zach Maynard had eclipsed Allan Bridgford and Brock Mansion. It was clear throughout spring drills that Tyler Hansen was the Buffaloes' best option. And Steve Sarkisian tapped Keith Price over Nick Montana before the spring game.
If you're looking for a potential source for making quarterback decisions before preseason camp, consider former USC coach Pete Carroll. He believed in "anointing" a starter after spring practices because he believed it helped them become leaders over the summer -- see Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez. Notably, Sarkisian chatted with Carroll before tapping Price.
While coaches will still talk about competition, and it wouldn't be wise for any of these guys to take their job for granted, the only team with remaining uncertainty behind center is UCLA, and even then most would project a healthy Kevin Prince -- the incumbent starter who suffered a season-ending knee injury that also knocked him out of spring practice -- is the likely choice.
Still, let's look at where the Bruins' competition stands.
Richard Brehaut: There's no other way to say it: While Brehaut didn't play terribly well after replacing Prince, his passing numbers were better than what Prince did in 2010. That fact has engendered some not unreasonable sentiments that coach Rick Neuheisel has some sort of issue with Brehaut, a summary of which is provided here by Adam Maya (by the way, former offensive coordinator Norm Chow doggedly believed Prince was a better option than Brehaut). While Neuheisel said it was "nothing personal," it is fairly clear that Neuheisel questions Brehaut's complete commitment, which is reflected in Brehaut's apparently incomplete absorption of the offense. Further, knowing Neuheisel and how he works with quarterbacks, I can tell you that those little tirades he seems to have with his quarterbacks after a bad play mostly amounts to Neuheisel asking the quarterback to explain what he was thinking. And if the player doesn't have an answer, it drives Neuheisel crazy. A bad explanation -- "I didn't see the safety cheating over" -- is way, way better than "I don't know."
Brett Hundley: Hundley is the hotshot incoming freshman -- one of the nation's top dual-threat prep quarterbacks during the 2010-11 recruiting season -- whom many fans have been making googly-eyes at. But it ain't easy going from high school quarterback to college quarterback, and it was clear during spring practices that Hundley had a ways to go (though he also had some "wow" moments, too). Hundley was a bit of a long shot in any event, but after he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus and will be out most of camp, his chances of redshirting are now higher than of him winning the starting job. Still, if he comes back strong, he could earn playing time. And if the situation gets desperate, Neuheisel, under pressure to win now, might roll the dice with a true freshman.
Nick Crissman and Darius Bell: These are the two long shots. Crissman's career has been riddled by shoulder injuries, but he had a fairly good spring and he's got some skills. Bell, a JC transfer, is a far better runner than passer. Many Bruins fans probably recall his regrettable debut in relief of Brehaut during a loss at Washington: 0-for-3 with an interception and a tongue-lashing from Neuheisel.
And we made the executive decision not to make this a list of USC upset losses -- other than the biggest one of those.
10. Oregon 56, Arizona State 55 (2 OT), 2000: Many of you are drawing a blank, but the ones who saw this one are jumping out of their chairs and going, "Oh man. That one was nuts." Both teams scored 21 points in the fourth quarter. The teams combined for 1,228 yards, 663 of those for the Sun Devils. Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington threw six -- SIX! -- touchdown passes, including three in the fourth quarter, the last of which tied the score with 27 seconds left after the Sun Devils gave away a critical fumble. Arizona State freshman QB Jeff Krohn threw five TD passes, by the way. ASU lost the game when coach Bruce Snyder decided to fake the extra point and go for the two-point conversion in the second overtime. It failed, leaving fans in Tempe stunned.
9. Washington State 30, USC 27 (OT), 2002: Any of you Cougars fans able to muster the memory of kicker Drew Dunning's slide on his knees at Martin Stadium? Dunning sent the game into overtime with a 35-yard field goal and then made the game-winner from the same distance in a victory that was critical to the Cougars' run to the Rose Bowl. The game featured a brilliant quarterback duel between Carson Palmer and Jason Gesser -- Gesser passed for 315 yards, Palmer for 381 -- and a dominant performance from Cougars defensive tackle Rien Long, who went on to win the Outland Trophy. Between this game and the 2006 Rose Bowl, USC lost just once.
8. Oregon 44, Arizona 41 (2 OT), 2009: If Arizona had won this game, we now know the Wildcats would have played in their first Rose Bowl. The Wildcats led 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, but then the game went crazy. With red-clad Arizona fans encircling the field, Ducks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli tied the game in regulation with six seconds left with a touchdown pass to Ed Dickson. Masoli then won it in the second overtime with a 1-yard run. Masoli ran for three TDs and passed for three more.
7. Stanford 24, USC 23, 2007: Greatest upset in Pac-10 history? Maybe. Stanford was a 41-point underdog playing its backup quarterback at No. 2 USC, which had won 35 in a row at home. But Trojans quarterback John David Booty, who foolishly played -- and was allowed to play -- with an injured throwing hand, threw four interceptions, while Stanford's Tavita Pritchard led a clutch, game-winning drive, throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mark Bradford on fourth-and-goal with 49 seconds remaining.
6. Oregon 37, Oregon State 33, 2009: It was the Civil War for the Roses, with the Ducks earning a berth in the Rose Bowl after slipping a game crew of Beavers. While the return of Ducks running back LeGarrette Blount was significant -- he scored a critical touchdown -- the game belonged to redshirt freshman running back LaMichael James, who scored three touchdowns and rushed for 166 yards, and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who ran over Beavers safety Lance Mitchell to convert a fourth-and-3 play from the Beavers' 33 with 3:41 left as Oregon ran out the final six minutes with its final drive.
5. California 31, Oregon 24, 2007: Sixth-ranked California, featuring a stellar performance from receiver DeSean Jackson, outlasted No. 11 Oregon in a game between two teams that each would at one point rise to No. 2 during the season, though both ultimately crumbled. The game turned on a strange play as the Ducks were on the cusp of tying the score. With 22 seconds to go, Dennis Dixon found Cameron Colvin near the goal line, but Colvin fumbled trying to reach the ball into the end zone when he was hit by Marcus Ezeff. The loose ball went through the end zone and was ruled a touchback and possession for Cal.
4. Washington 33, Oregon State 30, 2000: It was the greatest game no one saw because of the late, West Coast kickoff at Husky Stadium. And at the time its magnitude wasn't clear. The critical play of the back-and-forth affair happened when Washington defensive tackle Larry Tripplett caught Ken Simonton for a three-yard loss on second-and-1 from the Huskies 26-yard line with 42 seconds left. The Beavers panicked and mistakenly spiked the ball -- they had a time out left -- and then Ryan Cesca missed a 46-yard field goal to tie. It was the Beavers only loss of the season; they crushed Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. They would have played Oklahoma for the national title if they had prevailed. And the win helped the Huskies win the Rose Bowl tiebreaker.
3. USC 23, California 17, 2004: No. 7 California had a first-and-goal on top-ranked USC's 9-yard line with under two minutes left. At that point, Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers had completed 29 of 31 for 267 yards and a touchdown. But the Bears couldn't punch it in, with USC registering a sack and forcing three incompletions. It was the closest call of the season for the best team of the USC dynasty.
2. USC 34, Notre Dame 31, 2005: The infamous "Bush Push" game. No. 9 Notre Dame was about to knock off top-ranked rival USC and make Irish coach Charlie Weis a national sensation, but Matt Leinart led a drive for the ages in the waning moments as the Trojans prevailed, scoring the winning points when Leinart got a little extra help from Bush on his second effort on a quarterback sneak.
1. Texas 41, USC 38, 2006 Rose Bowl: Perhaps the great game in college football history, particularly considering that the stakes were a national title for two unbeaten teams and the field was packed with talent and future high draft choices. Vince Young almost single-handedly willed his team to the victory -- he ran for 200 yards and passed for 267 more -- and denied the Trojans a third consecutive national title. USC walked away with a laundry list of "what ifs," but the ultimate result was a 34-game winning streak coming to an end.
To the notes.
JT from New York writes: Do you think the success of Utah, Cincinnati, Boise, and Oregon, and the fall of USC, Georgia, and Notre Dame, will put a damper on the star system for recruits and the overall ranking of recruiting classes? Seems that the emphasis placed on the incoming guys becomes less and less relevant (or relates less to success) every year given the season ending outcomes.
Ted Miller: Short answer: No.
Folks love reading about recruiting. They love ratings. They love the whole thing, even when they are complaining about it.
Any responsible recruiting guru will tell you that the "star system" is an inexact science, but measuring things in shades of gray is part of college football -- see the national polls and BCS system as a whole.
I also don't know if the recruiting rankings look that much different than the final polls. If you go here, you see a lot of Alabama, Texas, Florida, USC and other national powers.
If you're asking why schools that typically don't rank highly in recruiting seem to end up scattered throughout the national polls annually, there are a handful of explanations.
Evaluation: Some staffs are particularly good at projecting how a high school senior might develop physically over the next few years. They also seem to see the inner football player. Oregon State's Mike Riley would be a good example, as would Arizona's Mike Stoops.
Development: A good strength and conditioning program is critical, and nutritional guidance is often underrated. On the field, it's about assistant coaches who are superior teachers of fundamentals and technique. Often less highly rated guys take coaching better, too.
Coaching: A well-coached team can make up for talent deficiencies by outsmarting its opponent. I'd throw Brian Kelly and Chris Petersen into that pool and I suspect you could add Chip Kelly, though he's been a head coach for just one year. Those guys strike me as schematic savants. But coaching isn't just a big brain. It's also motivating and unifying a locker room. Again, that's Riley and also Jim Harbaugh and, though he's also a newbie, Washington's Steve Sarkisian.
Kai from Castro Valley, Calif., writes: The new thing in college football is to leave high school early and join college spring camp. What are your thoughts? Good or Bad decision?
Ted Miller: It's not really a new thing. I recall back in 1991 being among the throng who couldn't wait for super-recruit Eric Zeier, the pride of Marietta (Ga.) High School, to win the starting quarterback job of Georgia. But it seems like early-entry -- some call it "greenshirting" -- really became more popular over the past five or six years.
The reason players opt for early-entry is simple: They want to get their career started and showing up early might help them play sooner.
Quarterbacks, particularly, seem to want to get a head start with the playbook and coaching -- see Philip Rivers, John David Booty (who skipped his entire senior year of high school), Tim Tebow, Matthew Stafford, Matt Barkley, Richard Brehaut, etc.
The oft-cited downside: What about enjoying your senior year of high school? Why skip a step growing up?
That's not invalid, though it might be a tad sentimental.
To me it comes down to this: What's right for the young man and his family?
If a player is that focused on football and getting his career started, then there's no reason for him to spend his final months of high school trying to figure out when everybody's parents are going out of town so they can throw a righteous house party.
Also, there are a number of advantages for the student-athlete: He gets more bang for his buck on scholarship -- it's a free semester. And it also gives a young man a chance test drive the school and program before he gets lost in a crowd of 25 or so incoming players.
This is a nice story on the topic by the LA Times' David Wharton.
Mike from Seattle writes: After reading your post on the pac-10 quarterbacks returning next year I found myself wondering who is the deepest?
Ted Miller: That's tough to evaluate, but here are the backup situations (class standing is for 2010).
Arizona: Junior Matt Scott. He started three games last year, so he's not completely green.
Arizona State: Both junior Samson Szakacsy and sophomore Brock Osweiler saw significant playing time in 2009. Michigan transfer Steven Threat, a junior, started eight games in 2008. One of those three will start.
California: Neither sophomore Beau Sweeney nor junior Brock Mansion have seen significant action.
Oregon: Senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas are a solid tandem with some game experience.
Oregon State: Sophomore Ryan Katz and junior Peter Lalich will compete to replace Sean Canfield this spring.
Stanford: Redshirt freshmen Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo will be very green behind Andrew Luck.
UCLA: Sophomores Richard Brehaut and Nick Crissman will start spring behind sophomore Kevin Prince on the depth chart. Brehaut threw 17 passes in 2009, Crissman two.
USC: Junior Aaron Corp and senior Mitch Mustain will backup sophomore Matt Barkley, unless one opts to transfer.
Washington: Junior Ronnie Fouch stepped in for an injured Jake Locker in 2008, though things didn't go well. Redshirt freshman Keith Price and incoming freshman Nick Montana also are in the mix.
Washington State: Junior Marshall Lobbestael figures to be sophomore Jeff Tuel's primary backup.
Kevin from Fullerton, Calif., writes: What do you think about the Beavs playing TCU next year along with Louisville and at BSU? Yikes! Not a great schedule for starting fast. I'm excited because those are all great games, but I'm just not confident the Beavs can win big, early OOC games.
Ted Miller: It's great that Oregon State is giving college football fans games that they can get excited about. Both Boise State and TCU probably will start out next year ranked in the top-10, and Oregon State also figures to be ranked in the preseason, perhaps even in the top-15.
Now, we all know that Oregon State has started slowly in recent years, but the 2010 squad will be veteran at just about every position other than quarterback. So the Beavers may be more in sync early.
Win these games, and the Beavers could launch a special season. And, even if they lose, they will have plenty of ranked teams in the Pac-10 they can crawl over as they make their typical late-season run back into the national polls.
Still, it's a brutal slate, particularly playing TCU in Texas and Boise on the blue turf. And some folks still will sniff over TCU and Boise State not being BCS conference teams, no matter where they are ranked. Losing to, say, a 15th-ranked Penn State squad still doesn't carry as much downside as losing to a No. 6 Boise State team.
Please, that's not my idea. Just the way it is.
If I were the Oregon State athletic director, I wouldn't have scheduled these games. If I were an AD, I'd always go with an A, B, C scheduling philosophy, with "A" being a marquee game with a BCS conference foe, a "B" game vs. a solid team -- not a Boise State or TCU -- and always at home and a "C" game with a patsy.
Still, it's hard to raise too much hell about matching up against two ranked programs during the early-season. I can't wait to watch both those games.
Aaron from "SEC country" writes: Maybe the Pac-10 is generally the #1 conference. When you look at the map, they should be! Where the SEC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12 and ACC - 55 of the 65 AQ schools - are all either contiguous or co-located and must compete with each other for players and exposure, other than outlier Colorado the Pac-10 is the only game in town west of Texas.Example: the SEC. 4 of 9 SEC states are shared with ACC and Big East schools (i.e. Florida, which has 2 ACC schools and a Big East school). The SEC East borders ACC and Big East country to the north and east and Big 10 country to the north. The SEC West borders the Big 12 and Big 10 to the north and west. So, programs like Miami, FSU, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Texas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Louisville, Missouri and Cincinnati compete directly with the SEC for players, coaches and media attention. Whatever obstacles the Pac-10 has, that sort of direct competition is not among them!Meanwhile, the Pac-10 has a whole 1/4 of the country to itself! So, the question must be asked: isn't the Pac-10 doing a better job of exploiting this clear advantage?
Ted Miller: Maybe.
First, I would direct you to this map of U.S. population density.
Second, I think some of the Pac-10 blog readers would say, "You had me at your first sentence."
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
The true freshman stepped into the huddle. He told his teammates not to worry. He would lead them to victory in a hostile environment.
|Brad Schloss/Icon SMI|
|Matt Barkley faces a true test going into the Horseshoe for his first start on the road.|
And Tennessee lineman Jason Layman turned to Peyton Manning and told him to "Shut up and call the play."
It's not easy being a true freshman quarterback for many reasons, including veteran teammates who couldn't care less about a scintillating prep pedigree.
USC guard Jeff Byers is a 24-year-old, sixth-year senior. He's the leader of a veteran offensive line that might be the nation's best unit. He's seen just about everything while blocking for three different quarterbacks who are now in the NFL.
Nonetheless, if true freshman Matt Barkley gave him an earful about a blown assignment, he said he'd take it without complaint.
"Oh yeah, because the kid is good," Byers said. "But I don't think he'd be one of the guys who would say that. He'd be one who'd slap you on the butt and say, 'Let's go get 'em. We all make mistakes.'"
And what about Barkley making his first road start inside the unfriendly confines of Ohio Stadium, aka the Horseshoe?
"I think he'll thrive in those kinds of places because he's such a great competitor," Byers said.
There are two powerful, competing forces at work amid the pregame hype for No. 3 USC's visit to No. 8 Ohio State.
One camp in L.A. provides a collective shoulder shrug when asked about the combination of Barkley and infamous atmosphere of the Horseshoe, where the Buckeyes are 24-1 in nonconference games under coach Jim Tressel, the lone defeat coming in 2005 to eventual national champion Texas.
Barkley has repeatedly said he's not worried, and even added a "bring it on" after practice Tuesday, which might help turn the volume of the 102,000 on hand up another notch from 11 to 12.
The other force counters that Barkley is still a true freshman -- he turned 19 this week -- and that he's never played in an environment like the Horseshoe and that no matter how poised he may be, that environment will at least distract him even if he's not intimidated.
And distracted quarterbacks tend to make mistakes, particularly young ones.
USC coach Pete Carroll has fielded the question 100 different ways since the Trojans stomped San Jose State 56-3 in the opener, and the media haven't worn down his faith that Barkley will not only be fine but will excel because of the environment.
"I would think he's going to have fun with it and he's going to be excited to see what it looks like to be in an opponent's stadium of that stature and all," Carroll said. "And then he's going to go play. I don't think it will matter to him at all. That's just the way he's been and how he's handled things and he has such confidence and such comfort in his own skin. That will be extended into the setting as well."
New USC starting quarterbacks have good track records in big, early-season nonconference road games under Carroll. Matt Leinart was a sophomore when the Trojans whipped No. 6 Auburn 23-0. Junior John David Booty was brilliant -- completing 24 of 35 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions -- when the Trojans bludgeoned Arkansas 50-14.
But neither was a true freshman.
Of course, the USC offense isn't only about Barkley. Far from it. Nine starters are back from 2008, and there's depth at every position.
"If you threw a freshman quarterback in there and everyone else was a rookie, it would be frightening," Tressel said. "But the beauty that Pete Carroll has there with Matt Barkley being in the game is that the offensive line is perfectly choreographed and all those folks he's got around him -- handing it to and throwing it to and protecting him and so forth -- that is as good of a situation as you can have."
Moreover, USC contends that Barkley is a true freshman in title only.
Receiver Damian Williams is tight with Aaron Corp, who lost the starting job to Barkley. But Williams said he knew Barkley was special early in spring practices, which Barkley participated in after graduating early from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif.
"He was making throws that I didn't think high school quarterbacks were capable of making," Williams said.
Barkley also immediately asserted himself in the huddle against San Jose State, even when the offense sputtered in the first quarter.
"He came to the huddle calm and collected ... he gave us a couple of pep talks in the huddle," running back Joe McKnight said.
Byers was particularly impressed by how quickly Barkley put bad plays behind him, including the lone sack the Trojans surrendered.
"I thought that was a defining moment," Byers said. "I loved how he was in the huddle. More important than how he played -- his numbers -- was just how he handled himself and controlled the offense and led us."
Ah, but that competing force just smirks. To it, all this feels like a pep talk for a young man who is about to enter the belly of the beast.
A Horseshoe? On the Buckeyes side of things, Ohio Stadium is grinning as it anticipates the arrival of Matt Barkley.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Maybe USC has trouble in the "O" states?
Hey, it's a reach to note that the mighty Trojans colossus has lost three in a row in the state of Oregon and apply it to this weekend's marquee tilt at Ohio State, but at least it's a chink in the armor for a program that hasn't lost a nonconference road game since early 2002, Pete Carroll's second season at Troy.
|Charles Baus/Icon SMI|
|USC coach Pete Carroll’s Trojans aren’t afraid to take it on the road.|
While Ohio State fans believe 105,000 united crazies inside the Horseshoe shouting down the Trojans and their true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley might make a difference, USC has carefully cultivated a culture that embraces taking its show on the road.
When USC walks into the room, every one knows it. Folks can't help but stare. And the Trojans love being looked at.
"I love it -- the noise, everybody going against you and you get the chance to quiet them down," running back Joe McKnight said. "It's fun. Any time we go somewhere, people want to see what USC is about. They want to prove to the world that USC can be beat."
USC has won its last three at Notre Dame, including the infamous "Bush push" in 2005. Auburn was thinking national championship in 2003 before the Trojans manhandled them 23-zip, with Matt Leinart making his first career start. Arkansas talked endlessly about taking vengeance for a 70-17 beatdown in 2005 only to leave their fans gaping in a 50-14 throttling the following season in John David Booty's debut. Nebraska, Virginia, Colorado, BYU and Virginia Tech also have been conquered by Trojan visitors.
That success might explain why USC doesn't get invited to party any more in certain areas of the country.
"I think there is a culture you can cultivate -- there's a whole mindset," Carroll said of playing on the road. "It doesn't just start with the day you're on game week [before going] on the road.It's something you built over a long period of time. It's your attitude and how you handle all games, not just road games."
Still, the long airplane ride, the foreign environment -- hotels, field, locker room, etc. -- all break a routine. Moreover, even if hostile faces don't make a team queasy, the noise is inconvenient no matter what, particularly for a visiting offense.
And deafening noise will be new for Barkley. No matter how cool he is, he's never experienced what he will experience on Saturday. This will be the first time he will play a game without being able to hear or be heard much of the time.
"That will be the first time he'll ever hear [noise] of that magnitude," Carroll admitted.
Nonetheless, Barkley only offers a pleasant shrug. Will it be loud? Sure. He'll adjust.
"I don't think that will make a difference," Barkley said after his cool-as-a-cucumber debut against San Jose State. "We'll do what we do best -- focus on ourselves throughout the week, focus on how we can better. You have to learn to push that stuff out. The atmosphere is probably going to be nuts. I probably don't even know how crazy it's gong to be. That won't faze me."
USC will practice with extra noise all week. It will work on various nonverbal signals to share audibles and information. While the Trojans defense is young, Barkley will be surrounded by veteran players on offense.
If any Trojan is worried about the notorious atmosphere in the Horseshoe for a night game, he isn't letting on.
"It's just noise," safety Taylor Mays said. "I like it. I like hearing it and then hearing it get quiet."
The decision to make Matt Barkley the first true freshman to start at quarterback for USC is simple.
I asked USC offensive coordinator John Morton Thursday evening after practice if Barkley straight-up beat out sophomore Aaron Corp, who was No. 1 entering preseason practices.
"Yes," Morton said.
I started to ask another question.
Morton broke in, "Aaron can still come back and compete. He's not truly 100 percent right now, but he will be in a week or so."
Two things are at work here: 1. Corp is still hurt (fractured fibula); 2. Barkley has wowed the USC coaches.
Did Corp's injury play into this decision?
"A little bit, but the way Barkley has been, being such a great competitor as a true freshman, doing everything exactly the way you want him to do it," Morton said. "He just prepares like he's been here for three years."
But he hasn't.
So the next thought is whether the Trojans will be conservative on offense with a freshman quarterback, despite welcoming back nine starters and perhaps the nation's best collection of skill players.
In other words, is Barkley going to be primarily asked to manage the game and not take risks?
"We never talk about that -- that's negative talk," Morton said. "We say, 'You approach the game like you always have and we'll take care of you.' We can run the whole offense with Barkley. We're not going to hold anything back. We're just going to go."
So, why now? Why make the announcement today?
"It was suited to right now to get this going," Morton said. "We've got a scrimmage on Saturday so it was the best time to do it just to get it out right now before tomorrow, which is a down day, a walk-through, so Barkley can have a mindset that he's the starter so he can prepare like a starter and get ready to go in the scrimmage."
I asked whether Corp can compete to win the job once he gets healthy.
"Yep -- the competition is to always strive to be the starter," Morton said. "But right now, Barkley is the starter."
USC has never been shy about playing freshman -- in fact, they use it as a selling point during recruiting.
But the Trojans have never started a true freshman at quarterback.
I remember chatting with Mark Sanchez about whether he felt he got a fair shot as a redshirt freshman to unseat John David Booty, who was clearly less talented than Sanchez.
Sanchez was diplomatic but everything about his response suggested he felt he should have displaced Booty.
USC coaches, for all their "win-forever" hipness, don't make half-cocked decisions.
The decision to announce Barkley as the starter this early surprised a number of folks (including me).
While Barkley may turn out to be the ultimate quarterback prodigy, it seems likely there will be more intrigue at quarterback for USC this season. Heck, the Trojans play at Ohio State, California, Oregon and Notre Dame, a brutal road schedule that would tax any quarterback.
So it's not hard to envision Barkley faltering at some point and Corp getting a chance to show what he can do.
But the USC coaches appear to be going all-in with Barkley. At least until the San Jose State game.
"There is no doubt in our mind that he is well-prepared and ready to go," Morton said.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Carson Palmer begat Matt Leinart. Matt Leinart begat John David Booty, who begat Mark Sanchez. Mark Sanchez begat Aaron Cor...
Wait! Hold the anointing oil.
Just last week, it seemed reasonable to discuss Aaron Corp moving to the head of the line at quarterback for USC. And Corp still figures to be announced as the Trojans' No. 1 quarterback before the spring game on April 25.
But when true freshman Matt Barkley -- really a high school senior, considering that's what he was before the first of the year -- completed 10 of 13 passes for 195 yards with three touchdowns in a scrimmage last Saturday, it thickened the plot considerably.
It also continued a pattern of Barkley gaining comfort with the offense, which allowed the talent that made him the nation's No. 1 prospect this recruiting season to blossom.
This means two things:
1. This fall likely will feature the most wide-open quarterback competition USC has had under coach Pete Carroll;
(Mitch: Don't despair. I'd like to introduce you to Matt Cassel).
Never before during Carroll's going-on nine-year tenure has the lead quarterback coming out of spring lost his perch. And Carroll, who obsesses about turnovers like Imelda Marcos does about shoes, has never previously considered a freshman.
So this is a break from a firmly established tradition.
Of course, Carroll loves to quibble -- mostly good naturedly -- with how reporters represent things during his post-practice media scrums.
Here's what Carroll said after practice Tuesday about the competition continuing into the fall, according to the Michael Lev of the Orange County Register.
"Surely. Just in all fairness to the time it takes to develop at the position, this competition may be on for a long time. Whether it goes into the fall or not ... we're going to start over in the fall anyway.
"We'll see how this thing ends in the next couple weeks. We have to make a call like we're playing the game for that last outing [the April 25 spring game], we'll make a decision there. And then the competition is on again. I've always said that when we go to camp, and you guys are like, 'Yeah, yeah, sure.' That's how we think. Things can change, and things can happen.
"Certainly, you can imagine, if Matt gets summertime and another fall camp, he's going to be that much more in command of things. We certainly aren't going to make a decision and close the door on anything. We'll just stay open, let the best guy win the job and go from there."
In other words, Barkley has been so good, he's changing the way things have been done in the past.
And so we have the biggest story in college football heading into the 2009 season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
It was completely stunning, one of the biggest upsets of all time.
But neither coach seems to believe that Stanford's 24-23 victory last October holds any relevance for this year's reunion.
"Hopefully it will be a very emotional game," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "We want every one of them to be like that. This being a Pac-10 championship opportunity for us, we're going to bring everything we got, regardless of what happened in either direction the year before."
Present, shmesent -- let's look back for a moment.
Recall that Stanford was a 41-point underdog and was using first-time starter Tavita Pritchard at quarterback.
Recall that USC had won 35 consecutive home games and the Trojans outgained the Cardinal 459 yards to 235. And that USC led 16-7 entering the fourth quarter, Stanford's lone touchdown coming on an interception return.
Yet there was Stanford in the waning moments, improbably driving for the go-ahead score.
First, the Cardinal converted on fourth and 20 with 1:38 left. Then Pritchard hit Mark Bradford on fourth-and-goal from the 10 for the winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining.
It was mind-blowing and magical -- from the Cardinal perspective -- and worthy of stadium roars across the country as the score was posted.
Yet, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, when asked twice on Tuesday about last year, studiously redirected his response to the present.
"For us, it's an opportunity to play at the center stage of college football, not just to complete -- we know we are going to compete -- but to win," he said. "I would expect USC to be fired up -- fire in their eyes. I'd expect nothing less from our team."
Carroll will talk about last year. He's watched the film this week, but he didn't have to do that to relate where things went wrong for USC.
Quarterback John David Booty threw four interceptions in the second half after breaking a bone in his hand. Mark Sanchez would start the next three games, but he arrived a half too late.
"I played a quarterback with a broken bone in his throwing hand -- that's what went wrong" Carroll said with just a twinge of bitterness.
"John David really struggled in the second half of that game. We weren't playing great up until then, but he threw some picks in that game that he's never done before. I should have taken him out. I just made a mistake in judgment that he could perform at a level good enough for us to win. That was the big mistake on our part."
While the revenge angle is certainly present -- whether either coach acknowledges it or not -- most of the conventional analysis projects an easy afternoon for the Trojans.
Stanford, which needs one win over its final two games to become bowl eligible, ranks last in the Pac-10 in pass offense and pass defense.
USC has the best passing offense in the Pac-10 -- see 26 touchdown passes and a 65 percent completion rate. And USC ranks No. 1 in the conference in pass defense.
And run defense. And every kind of defense.
So Stanford's one-dimensional power running attack figures to struggle. Only one team -- Oregon State -- ran the ball successfully against USC.
Oregon had 307 yards rushing last weekend against Stanford. The Ducks rushed for 60 yards against USC.
And, of course, there's this: USC is 25-0 in November under Pete Carroll. Twenty-one of those wins have come by double-digits.
So, there's no way that Stanford can win.
Just like last year.
Recall that before last year's game USC also was supposed to riding an edgy and motivated angle.
Before he'd even coached a game, Harbaugh told CBS Sportsline that Carroll was going to leave USC after the 2007 season, that Carroll would "...be there one more year. That's what I've heard. I heard it inside the staff."
That comment bothered Carroll and was supposed to drive him to pound the first-year Cardinal coach.
Recall that it didn't go that way.