LOS ANGELES -- USC quarterback Matt Barkley, enjoying a rare Saturday off, saw West Virginia's Geno Smith light up Baylor for 656 passing yards and eight touchdowns. Sunday, Barkley went back to practice -- where he had to answer questions about Smith's day and what it means in relation to USC's alleged woes in the passing game. Someone asked Barkley if he could imagine playing in a game like that.
"I can't imagine the defense they were playing," Barkley quipped.
Barkley didn't sound like his usual bubbly self Sunday as he prepared to face Utah Thursday night in Salt Lake City. He sounded like a guy tired of answering the same questions. When Barkley announced his return for this season, people like me put him on top of Heisman watch lists and put USC at or near the top of the national rankings. We assumed Barkley would own college football, and then, when the Trojans lost to Stanford Sept. 15, we turned on him. Suddenly, we found any number of flaws. Now, with a guy in Morgantown on pace to throw for approximately a million yards, we want to know why Barkley even bothered coming back for his senior year. And that isn't fair.
As a wide-open, pass-happy offense has taken over the game at the college and high school levels, a few schools have clung to the seemingly antiquated notion that running the ball and playing ferocious defense can still produce titles. Alabama is one, and the Crimson Tide have only won two of the past three national championships. LSU is another, and all the Tigers did last year was go 13-0 before falling to Alabama. Under Urban Meyer, Florida won two national titles by running inside frequently with a 240-pound rhinoceros of a quarterback and by playing lights-out defense. Even Chip Kelly's spread at Oregon relies more on the run than the pass. USC falls into this group, attempting to run a balanced offense and hoping the defense can get the ball back quickly without -- and this is important, Baylor and West Virginia -- allowing the other team to score.
But when picking Heisman Trophy winners and diagnosing offensive success and failure, chicks and Heisman voters dig the Air Raid and its offshoots. In a head-to-head comparison between Smith and Barkley, Smith -- who is not a "system" quarterback and who would succeed playing almost any style -- deserves to be listed first. Through four games, Smith has completed 141-of-169 passes for 1,728 yards with 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Through four games, Barkley has completed 88-of-143 passes for 1,005 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions.
That doesn't mean Barkley erred in returning to USC, though. We may have declared the Trojans finished after the Stanford loss, but he never did. "You don't talk about it," Barkley said. "It's not mentioned. Our eyes were on Cal since that Sunday after Stanford. Then all our focus has been on Utah for over a week now. There's no point in dwelling on that. We don't talk about it or bring it up at all."
Sure, Barkley might have been a top-five NFL pick this past April, but he spoke of "unfinished business" when he announced his decision to play his senior season. He won't have another shot at that win against Stanford unless the Trojans see the Cardinal in the Pac-12 championship game, but he can still win a Pac-12 title, and USC might still have a chance to compete for the national title depending on how the schedule unfolds in the other leagues. As impressive as some of the pass-happy schools have looked, their offenses can sometimes be exposed by an athletic defense. Oklahoma broke all sorts of passing records in 2008 and managed a measly 14 points in the BCS title game against Florida. Other spread teams have made the game -- and even won it -- but they have had excellent running games to complement their passing games. The far more reliable way to reach the title game has been playing the style USC has chosen to play.
So do the Trojans have to correct their passing issues? Remember, USC lost by a touchdown at Stanford on a day when the Trojans started third-string center Cyrus Hobbi because of injuries to starter Khaled Holmes and backup Abe Markowitz. Behind quarterback, center is tied with cornerback as the position in which an underprepared player will get exposed fastest. Yes, USC should have had a player prepared properly for such an occasion, but that's on the coaches -- not Barkley or Hobbi. Against Cal, with Markowitz at center, USC threw for only 192 yards. But the Trojans ran for 296, and they won quite comfortably. Barkley, asked Sunday if he'd like to see more from the passing game, gave the correct answer: "I'd like to see more points on the board," he said.
If Barkley and star receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee don't put up West Virginia numbers, it might hurt them come awards season, but it might help them achieve their goals. If Holmes can return from his ankle injury or Markowitz can keep playing well, the line can keep opening holes for Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. That might put the Trojans in a better position to compete in a deeper-than-expected Pac-12. Passing can be affected by weather and other factors. A great running game is a great running game, and a great running game also makes it easier to throw. The Trojans aren't built to score style points, so they shouldn't try. Wins should be enough. That's why Lee doesn't care about the delivery method as long as the ball finds its way into the end zone. "Not at all," Lee said. "We could fake a field goal and have our punter run it in as long as we win the game. We don't care who scores or how we score."
Barkley is not going to throw for 656 yards in a game. Smith might very well do it again on more than one occasion. Barkley, Woods and Lee may begin clicking again and light up Pac-12 defenses, but they still won't match the output of Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. That's fine. The Heisman hasn't been on Barkley's mind. "No, it hasn't been," Barkley said. "Until you guys ask about it."
Winning is on Barkley's mind. And if he can keep doing it, the numbers and individual trophies won't matter. He will have made the correct decision.