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BILL PLASCHKE

Matt Barkley gets the party started

After one shaky quarter, the freshman shows why Pete Carroll made him the starter.

September 06, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

His first downfield pass was strong and straight, hitting a USC teammate between the numbers.

A defender standing on the sidelines.

His first big third-down decision was made while he stood tall and sturdy in the pocket.

Just before being sacked.

One quarter into his college career Saturday, 18-year-old Matt Barkley was playing football like Charles Barkley plays golf.

His team was outscored by San Jose State, his passing numbers were doubled by the Spartans' Kyle Reed, and the thick, sweaty air filled the Coliseum with doubt.

He's just a kid!

But, gosh, they grow up fast these days, don't they?

Sometimes in, like, minutes.

Kid you not.

Matt Barkley quickly found his arm, his legs, and his teeny-bopper vocabulary by driving the Trojans to four second-quarter touchdowns.

"We came out rockin'," he said.

He then found his sense of humor while passing them to two more third-quarter scores.

"He came into the huddle and said, 'This is fun, isn't it?' " receiver Damian Williams said. "And I'm like, um, yeah."

Finally, he found his perspective after the Trojans' 56-3 victory when he smiled his way through a midfield postgame crush of media and fans.

"I got to see my dad on the field, that was cool," he said.

One game into the biggest gamble of Pete Carroll's USC coaching career, there are still plenty of things we don't know about his fuzzy-cheeked protege, but there is one thing we do know.

One day Matt Barkley is going to be rockin'.

It might not happen right away. It might not happen this season. And when it does happen, it might not be without crashes and controversies.

After three more months of gyrations, Barkley's 15-for-19, 233-yard, one-touchdown day against outmanned San Jose State will be little more than a twitch.

But Carroll was right. The kid is going to be special.

You could see it Saturday amid the heat of nearly 90,000 folks in a downtown oven, this laughing youngster leading college football's American Idols as if he were singing in the shower.

"I got goose bumps, but only because I realized how cool this was," he said.

He talks like that. The hot Saturday was "cool." The tough offensive line was "sweet."

He looks like that. Blond hair, wide eyes, huge smile, the kind of kid you would expect to park your car at South Coast Plaza.

He plays like that too, mixing up downfield passes and little dumps with a shrug and a grin.

"He gets back in the huddle and you just want to joke with him because he's, like, a little kid," said Williams, who was his safety net with 67 yards' worth of catches.

He wasn't the only little kid out there Saturday.

Nobody was giddier than Carroll, who is putting every ounce of his football acumen on the line in handing his potential national championship team to a guy who last fall played football in a league filled with puberty.

By backing true freshman Barkley, Carroll is overlooking the guy who won the job in the spring (Aaron Corp), while snubbing a guy who won eight consecutive starts for Arkansas (Mitch Mustain).

Taking this risk with the same passion of his fourth-and-one calls, Carroll has publicly poured more of himself into Barkley than any other athlete in eight previous seasons here.

Late Saturday afternoon, soaked in equal parts perspiration and relief, he looked it.

"He was calm, he was poised, he was fun to talk to about what was going on," Carroll said of Barkley. "He had a smile on his face. He loved every minute of it."

Carroll loved how Barkley handled the increased intensity, speed and competition, noting that while the kid might not have been spectacular, he was smart to be really good.

"Just to survive in this first game, that's another statement about how solid this kid is," Carroll said.

Barkley even handled the locker room interviews with class, patiently meeting with wave after wave of reporters before politely excusing himself to take a shower.

The only rookie miscommunication occurred not with Barkley, but with his immediate boss, new quarterbacks coach and play-caller Jeremy Bates.

Bucking a long history of USC tradition, Bates did not stick around to meet with the media, who surely would have asked if this 45-rush, 19-pass game plan was designed to protect the kid.

It was, of course. It will have to change against Ohio State, absolutely.

We will learn much more about Matt Barkley then, about his ability to stay upright and overcome mistakes.

But for now, we know he can dump a ball to Rhett Ellison for a four-yard touchdown pass, and hit Williams downfield for 17 yards, and go even deeper to Anthony McCoy for 44 yards.

We know that even the burliest of offensive linemen believe in him, with guard Alex Parsons saying, "He has amazing huddle presence, he is not an 18-year-old kid in there."

As season-opening debuts go, this lacked the passion play of Matt Leinart's win at Auburn, and the prolific numbers of John David Booty's win at Arkansas.

But for a program built on outlandish imagination, it was darn near perfect.

To steal one more word from the youngest of Trojan bards, it was sweet.

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