Before Matt Barkley played in his first game for USC, former Trojans coach Pete Carroll said of his then-freshman quarterback, "He's so far ahead of the curve, that it's hard to predict what he's going to be able to do." This writer watched a preseason practice and declared, in all sincerity, "It's like you're looking out at a young Joe Montana." And when Barkley helped lead the Trojans to a game-winning drive at Ohio State in the second week of the season, an ESPN writer proclaimed, "The Barkley bandwagon, picking up momentum for a month, is stampeding now."
But then USC slunk to a 9-4 season, with Barkley enduring a typically up-and-down freshman season (15 touchdowns, 14 interceptions). Carroll bolted for the NFL, USC got hit with an NCAA-imposed two-year bowl ban and the Trojans fell off the national radar for the first time in nearly a decade. Stanford's Andrew Luck and Washington's Jake Locker became the new en vogue Pac-10 quarterbacks.
As a sophomore, however, Barkley has delivered on his considerable promise. He's developed into one of the nation's most productive passers, throwing for 1,869 yards, 20 touchdowns and just four interceptions. And he's done it with a fraction of the fanfare that accompanied his arrival as a freshman, in part because the Trojans are no longer BCS contenders, in part because his team is 5-2 after losing on last-second field goals to Washington and Stanford.
"He'd be one of the front-runners for the Heisman right now if we were able to make stops in those two games," USC coach Lane Kiffin said last week.
Barkley and the Trojans return to the limelight, at least for a week, when they host top-ranked Oregon (7-0) Saturday night at the Coliseum. It was on Halloween night in Eugene a year ago that the Ducks throttled Carroll's last team, 47-20, effectively ending USC's seven-year stranglehold on the Pac-10. This year, the No. 24 Trojans find themselves playing the role of potential spoiler, which, with no postseason berth on the horizon, makes Saturday's game their biggest of the year. In light of the recent string of road losses by top-ranked teams -- all of them, like Oregon-USC, accompanied by a visit from ESPN's GameDay -- the Trojans have become a trendy upset pick.
"In a sense, it is a bowl game for us," said Barkley. "This opportunity doesn't come around very often to play the No. 1 team in country in the Coliseum. It's a night game, and we realize we can do something special if we play Trojans football like we have the past couple of weeks."
Few would have given USC a chance after its first five games, in which it struggled to put away overmatched foes Hawaii, Virginia and Minnesota, then lost at home to middling Washington. In the defeat to the Huskies, Barkley threw for just 186 yards. On the road against then No. 16 Stanford one week later, however, the sophomore exploded for a career-high 390 yards and three touchdowns, leading a go-ahead touchdown drive with 1:08 left. He followed that up with a 352-yard, five-touchdown day in a 48-14 rout of Cal -- a game the Trojans led 42-0 at halftime.
"Taking us down to score against Stanford, for what seemed to be the game-wining touchdown, was a big step for him," said Kiffin. "[The next] week, he basically played a perfect game against Cal."
It's only natural that Barkley, a former Gatorade National Player of the Year at Orange County prep power Mater Dei, would progress with a year's experience. In hindsight, however, several factors may have contributed to his 2009 struggles.
Despite Carroll's insistence at the time that his quarterback was "not a typical kid," Barkley was not immune to freshman naiveté. "I think he was used to the whole high school thing, just trying to gun it in there," said center Kris O'Dowd. Both Kiffin and O'Dowd praised Barkley's improved decision-making, which has helped up his completion percentage from 59.9 to 65.4.
Meanwhile, Barkley's first position coach and playcaller was the newly hired Jeremy Bates, a 33-year-old Carroll import from the Denver Broncos. Much to USC fans' consternation, Bates clung mostly to vanilla, conservative game plans. Kiffin, who serves as his own playcaller, has shown little reluctance to air things out.
"Last year we had an NFL style offensive coordinator who'd never been in college football," said Barkley. "I'm loving the playcalling, especially in the red zone. On third downs, he's taking a little more chances, knowing with the talent and skills we have, we can get it done."
One of the more important moments in Barkley's transformation did not take place in a game, on the practice field or in the film room. It came on June 10, the day the NCAA announced severe sanctions against USC's program for infractions involving former star Reggie Bush. When reporters descended on Heritage Hall for reaction, Kiffin sent rising sophomore Barkley, not one of the team's many veteran starters, to face the cameras.
"I came here to get a degree from one of the best universities in the country, and to win football games," Barkley said that day. "If we play 13 instead of 14, then we're going to try to win all 13 of those. No matter what happens, we're staying positive."
Since then, Barkley has been the Trojans' undisputed leader, continually echoing those upbeat sentiments at a time when most of the college football world is seemingly waiting for USC's inevitable implosion. "Matt gave us a good precedent for what we were going to be about as a team in his interviews with the press that day," said O'Dowd, a senior. "Having the focal point of our team, our quarterback, saying, 'This is what we need to do and everybody needs to get on board,' that shows how much he's matured as a leader."
Barkley, 20, has carried himself like a veteran from the day he arrived on campus, but there are times when his youthful spirit still comes out, like last Saturday night. After watching underdog Cain Velasquez knock out Brock Lesnar in a UFC title fight, Barkley excitedly tweeted: Wow, Brock just got rocked! Lesnar is to Oregon as Velasquez is to SC. Lezgo.
Barkley quickly deleted the tweet, but not before some Oregon fans took notice and sent it viral.
Of course, if Oregon wins Saturday, it won't be because of a tweet. The Trojans, who rank a woeful 89th nationally in total defense, face a stiff challenge trying to slow down the Ducks' breakneck spread offense, which leads the country in both scoring (55.1) and yards (569.1) per game.
But as Barkley said, this is USC's bowl game. Fresh off a bye week, the Trojans figure to come out playing crisp. They'll almost certainly need to keep pace in an expected shootout, and if they do, it will most likely be due to Barkley picking apart Oregon's defense.
"I have a lot of respect for [USC]," said Ducks coach Chip Kelly. "I think Matt Barkley is one of the really, really special quarterbacks in this country."
Funny: Only a year ago, such praise was coming primarily from Barkley's own coach. Now, Barkley's performance speaks for itself.