He did not losehis breakfast, did not mistakenly place his hands against the buttocks of anoffensive guard and start calling the cadence. He barely had butterflies, MattBarkley swore afterward. Did Barkley have any freshman moments on the day hebecame the first true freshman to start an opener at quarterback for USC?
"He might'vecalled the wrong play one time," said wideout Damian Williams after theTrojans' 56--3 rout of San Jose State last Saturday. "But they all do that.Mark used to do it all the time."
It was the earlydeparture of Mark Sanchez to the NFL that opened the door for Barkley, whoplowed through it headfirst, wresting the job from redshirt sophomore AaronCorp. The starter coming out of spring practice, Corp suffered a small fractureto his left fibula on Aug. 10. By the time Corp got back on the field two weekslater, coach Pete Carroll had all but made up his mind to go with hisrifle-armed wunderkind.
So debilitated bynerves was Barkley that he could be seen an hour before kickoff ... throwingcomically wobbly, lefthanded passes, just to get some laughs out of "mybrothers," as he refers to his teammates. So oppressed by the magnitude ofthe moment was the 18-year-old that he trotted out to the huddle early in thesecond half and chirped, "This is fun, isn't it?"
It wasn't much funin the first quarter, during which the offense struggled, the plucky Spartanstook a 3--0 lead and a smattering of boos could be heard in the Coliseum. Butthen, using a template Trojans fans can expect to see plenty of this season,USC employed terrific line play to get the run going (Joe McKnight rushed for145 yards and a pair of TDs on 14 carries), which in turn opened up the pass.The freshman completed 15 of 19 passes for 233 yards, with one touchdown and nointerceptions. Of those four incompletions, Carroll was quick to point out,three were throwaways. The fourth clanged off the hands of tight end AnthonyMcCoy. "That's a pretty good day," assessed Carroll, laboring tomeasure his praise for the young QB—a struggle he usually loses. (In one66-word span at his Tuesday press conference, Carroll described Barkley as"gifted," "amazing," "unusual" and"exceptional.")
A four-yearstarter at nearby Mater Dei High, the 6'3", 220-pound Barkley enrolled atUSC in January so he could participate in spring practice. He surprised thecoaching staff with his ability to absorb the offense and move the ball againstthe first-team defense.
"The initialexpectation was that he probably wouldn't be able to hang," says Matt'sfather, Les, who was an All-America water polo player for the Trojans in thelate 1970s. "For whatever reason, he was."
Les was in abusiness meeting on the morning of Aug. 27 when he got a call from Matt."Can't talk right now," said the father. "I'll have to call youback."
"Well,O.K.," replied Matt, "but trust me, you really want to callback."
He had just beennamed the starter. The news came as little surprise to Bruce Rollinson, theMater Dei coach who in the summer of 2005 caused jaws to drop by naming afreshman as his starting quarterback. This wasn't just any freshman. Barkleyalready stood 6'2", weighed 205, and had a howitzer. While he'd excelledduring practice in seven-on-seven—"A million guys look good when no one'srushing them," notes Rollinson—the youngster also kept his head"against live blitzes. And I noticed that the older guys didn't have aproblem with him. In fact, they gravitated to him." So we said, 'Let'sthrow the kid in there and see where it goes.'"
On his first passin his first game, the coach recalls, "he drops back, lets the [pass]routes develop, goes to his second receiver and hits a kid in stride for a longtouchdown. I remember thinking, You just got a lot smarter as a coach."
Rollinsonencouraged Barkley to attack defenses, to take shots downfield. "Beforeevery game I told him the same thing: 'Just fire it.'"
It is thatgunslinger's mentality that Carroll and first-year offensive coordinator JeremyBates (who is also the quarterbacks coach) are trying to modify. Barkley wonthe job over Corp despite throwing 16 interceptions in practice and scrimmagesdating to last spring. (Corp threw just two.)
The game planagainst the Spartans called for short and intermediate passes. At no point didBarkley go deep. The Trojans' website is USCRipsit.com, so it seems fair toask, when does Barkley get to start ripping it?
Not very soon, itsounds like. "Matt's trying to work himself out of that mind-set," saysCarroll of the go-for-broke mentality. "And the truth is, right now wedon't need it."
They don't need itbecause USC is going to put up some serious rushing yards this season. Moresurprising, considering that the unit lost eight starters from last season, wasthe early excellence flashed by the Trojans' defense: 16 tackles for loss andfive sacks against the Spartans, who were 1 of 16 on third-down conversions.That's bad news for Ohio State, which put up 363 yards of total offense whileescaping with a 31--27 win over Navy. Yards and points should be far tougher tocome by when the Trojans visit the Horseshoe this Saturday.
Barkley, as usual,isn't sweating it. "I probably don't even know how crazy it's going tobe," he says. "But it won't faze me."
"In away," says USC middle linebacker Chris Galippo, "he's been through thisalready. They're going to go after him because he's a freshman, just like wewent after him because he was a freshman." That was Galippo's junior yearat Servite High in Anaheim. And how'd that go?
"He kicked ourbutts."
"It won't faze me," Barkley says of hisupcoming trip to the Horseshoe.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
WHAT NERVE Barkley threw for 233 yards and completed 79% of his passes, then celebrated with the gushing Carroll.