A Glimpse of Greatness: How Matt Barkley is Scratching the Surface of Expectations

To give new readers a glimpse of my style and to give this new site an early push, I am re-publishing articles from my previous sports blog. Here is a piece I wrote about the progress of USC quarterback Matt Barkley:

After two straight games in which USC lost as time expired, the Trojans knew that Saturday’s game was important. First, a victory would ensure that the team avoided its first three-game losing streak since 2001, Pete Carroll’s first season. And second, a victory would send a clear statement to the nation that USC is still the same proud program–despite the sanctions–that won seven straight conference championships and multiple national championships. Well, in case you missed it, the Trojans accomplished both goals on Saturday night by delivering a 48-14 thumping on the California Golden Bears. While there were several things we can take away from that victory, one stood out from the rest:  Matt Barkley is as advertised and perhaps better. And when his college career is said and done, I would be shocked if he did not have a Heisman Trophy to his name.

The hype surrounding Barkley was enormous before he even set foot onto campus. People said it was only a matter of time before he would follow in the footsteps of Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart to become the next Heisman-winning quarterback at USC. Although he posted respectable numbers during his freshman campaign, plenty of people, including myself, doubted whether Barkley was the right guy for the program. For one, other quarterbacks within the conference, like Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Arizona’s Nick Foles, Oregon’s then-starter Jeremiah Masoli, and Washington’s Jake Locker, overshadowed Barkley; some had stronger arms, some had more agility, and others were more dependable.

Second, Barkley did not have any one performance that you could stamp as his “coming-out party.” Although some would argue that his gritty performance at Ohio State in the biggest showdown of the year constitutes a “coming-out party,” if you look at his individual numbers on that day, they do not exactly scream “Look at me, I have arrived!”:  15-for-31 (48.4%) for 195 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception. In the other eleven games he started, he only threw more touchdowns than he did interceptions in four of them:  at home against a pathetic San Jose State team, at home against an equally pathetic Washington State team,  on the road against an underachieving Notre Dame squad, and on the road in a blowout loss to Oregon. On the season, Barkley threw rougly one interception for every touchdown he notched (14 picks, 15 TDs). I would find it hard to believe anyone who could look me straight in the eye and say, with a straight face, that they thought Barkley, after his freshman season, was “the real deal.” There was nothing in any of his performances that would lead a seasoned college football fan to draw that conclusion.

But what you could draw, however, was that Barkley was motivated by his freshman year struggles. The guy entered this season in better physical shape having lost some weight and better mental shape by staying focused amidst earth-shattering sanctions and a coaching staff overhaul. But being svelt and saying the right things do not mean anything unless you can put it all together and perform on the football field.

Barkley started the season on fire, throwing a combined seven touchdowns in his first two games. Granted, the competition was not exactly fierce (Hawaii and Virginia). Barkley’s next two games were shaky, but showed glimpses of what he achieved in the prior two:  a mediocre effort over Minnesota and a tremendous first half but disappointing second half against Washington State. Then, just when it seemed like the quarterback was on his way to a great season, Barkley laid a goose egg at home against the Huskies:  14-for-20 for 186 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions. The performance was so pitiful (I saw it in person) that I thought we had seen a quarterback who completely regressed back to his freshman form. But just when most people hopped off the Matt Barkley Heisman Trophy Bandwagon, the sophomore signal-caller bounced back with the two most impressive performances of his young career.

Against a poweful and favored Stanford team, Barkley went threw for a career high 390 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions; had the Trojans’ porous defense  stopped Stanford on its eventual game-winning drive, it could have secured Barkley’s first signature victory. Then, for an encore this past Saturday afternoon, Barkley carved up the other Bay Area squad. He threw for a school record 5 touchdown passes…in the first half (the record is both a first-half record and a single-game record). And if it weren’t for some penalties down near Cal’s goal line, Barkley would have had six scores.

As always, the box score does not tell the whole story. Against the Bears, Barkley coupled his strong decision-making with great passing. For the first of his five touchdown passes, Barkley scrambled to his right to evade a pass rush and then fired a bullet toward the front pylon of the end zone where Robert Woods made a magnificent grab with a defender draped on his back. For his next touchdown pass, Barkley again ran to avoid pressure and this time aired a ball out for David Ausberry down the right sideline. Barkley threw the ball knowing that Ausberry had a clear size advantage over the defensive back, and he threw the ball where only Ausberry could catch it–high and to Ausberry’s back shoulder. Passes like these from Barkley were a dime a dozen in the first half, and if it were not for Kiffin taking his foot off of the pedal in a 42-0 game, Barkley certainly would have had a monstrous second half. Also, keep in mind that Cal’s defense had been very solid against the pass. Here is what Cal’s defense did against opposing quarterbacks in its previous five games:

  • 57 yds, 0 TD, 0 INT
  • 166 yds, 0 TD, 3 INT
  • 181 yds, 2 TD, 0 INT
  • 212 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
  • 99 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT

If you ask me, that is some pretty impressive pass defense. But apparently Barkley didn’t care and made Cal’s secondary look as bad as his own (although for what it’s worth, USC’s secondary played better that day; I even saw T.J. McDonald defend a pass with his head turned toward the ball! Miraculously, it resulted in a pick! Who would’ve thought?).

As it sits now, Barkley has thrown 20 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions. He has completed nearly 60% of his passes (59.9% to be exact). He is averaging 8.9 yards per pass attempt, which is a clear indication that he is looking downfield instead of underneath. He also is developing a great relationship with emerging star Robert Woods. The two have connected 19 times for 340 yards and 5 touchdowns in the past two games. Woods will be here at least for another season, if not two, and if other young receivers like Kyle Prater and Markeith Ambles can provide some help, Barkley would suddenly have a ridiculous wide receiving corps.

But maybe the biggest reason why Barkley will win a Heisman is because of the learning ability and growth he has demonstrated thus far under Kiffin. It is obvious that the defense needs help and the special teams has its own issues. USC’s running game has always been a strength and at times it looked like USC would be a run-first, grind it out type team. But over the course of this season we have seen Barkley grow in front of our eyes. When I watch the offense play, I feel like they are unstoppable. Sure, they may punt once or twice per game, but I am very confident that when we need to score, Barkley will march us down the field and get us the points. No doubt. And eventually, barring any critical injuries, Barkley and his receiving corps will become a well-oiled machine that will remind SC fans of the days when Leinart spread the ball around to receivers like Mike Williams, Dwayne Jarrett, and Steve Smith. And on that day, Barkley will have lived up to the hype.

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