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BILL PLASCHKE

Matt Barkley gives USC one to grow on

Freshman quarterback's poised leadership on drive to winning touchdown shows he's ready to lead a potential national championship contender.

September 13, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM COLUMBUS, OHIO — The word kid is gone, vanishing within a pack of bouncing, braying teammates who rode him through a stomach-dropping Saturday night.

"He's not a kid anymore, he's a man," said USC's Joe McKnight.

The word risk is also gone, smothered under the prone, heaving jerseys of the guys who were flattened.

"They just pounded it down our throats," said Ohio State's Austin Spitler.

The questions that had dogged the USC football program for several weeks were stunningly answered Saturday night with two words.

Matt. Barkley.

"He's no longer that young freshman quarterback," said Jeremy Bates, USC's quarterbacks coach. "He's now the starting quarterback at USC."

Period. End of story. Beginning of stardom.

Those who questioned Coach Pete Carroll's sanity, those who thought a true freshman should never be the starting quarterback for a championship-contending team . . . were you watching? Were you listening?

Were you thinking what I was thinking?

Does anybody else believe that the Barkley-led, game-winning, 86-yard comeback touchdown drive in the final 7:15 of Saturday night's 18-15 win over eighth-ranked Ohio State at Ohio Stadium could be the start of something not only big, but historic?

"Leading a team to a comeback victory in the last minutes against Ohio State at the Horsehoe, are you kidding me?" linemen Jeff Byers said. "What kind of 19-year-old kid does that?"

Mark Sanchez never did these kinds of things. Carson Palmer never did them in this sort of environment. Matt Leinart did something like this once, at Notre Dame, and it wound up making him millions.

Matt Barkley has done it in his second collegiate start.

Took the ball at the end of a messy USC effort that featured a bad snap out of an end zone, a kick off a crossbar, blown coverages and dumb penalties.

Started on the Trojans' 14-yard line with little or no chance to salvage it.

Stepped aside while Coach Pete Carroll paid a sudden surprise visit to the huddle.

"How cool would it be for us to take the ball downfield and win this game?" Carroll screamed at the players.

Then Carroll left, and it was all Barkley, and the kid was smiling, some teammates even said he was joking, and later when he asked whether he thought he could pull it off, he answered simply.

"Yes," he said. "I knew our offense was going to score."

A week ago, that would have sounded cocky. Late Saturday night, well, it still sounded cocky, but that's Barkley.

"It's nuts," teammate Stafon Johnson said. "The whole thing is nuts."

The drive began, and immediately McKnight missed a block and Barkley was sacked and now he and the Trojans were backed up to the 10-yard line with all of middle America breaking loose upon his head.

More than 106,000 red-clad fans were bouncing and singing and jeering.

"I was screaming as loud as I could," he said later. "I think my ears are still ringing."

Somehow, he heard. Somehow, he understood.

McKnight ran 11 yards up the middle. McKnight caught a screen pass for 21 yards. The sack was forgotten. Barkley was moving them.

"He was in total command," McKnight said. "A grown man, he was."

Barkley hit Anthony McCoy downfield for 26 yards. He hit Damian Williams across the middle for eight yards.

On fourth and one, he stuck his head down and ran a quarterback sneak to the Ohio State 26-yard line, and things were getting serious.

"It's not easy, telling a young guy to tuck in that ball and follow the lane," said offensive line coach Pat Ruel. "[Barkley] doesn't know everything yet, but he's no freshman."

Three McKnight runs and an incomplete pass later, Barkley was sneaking again, this time on third down, again getting the first down, and later he was asked what he learned.

"I learned this is really fun," he said.

Seriously. An entire college football landscape is holding its breath and this dude is learning that it's, it's . . . fun?

Johnson's two-yard touchdown run around right end -- with no Ohio State player even coming close to touching him -- finished the finest Trojans drive since Leinart's Bush-Push victory in South Bend.

Eighty-six yards in 6:10 with Barkley going three-for-five for 56 yards with two sneaks for first downs.

A wondrous start not only for him, but also for a team that must now be considered a serious national championship contender.

Just as the kid and risk labels disappear, so does the one known as rebuilding.

The Trojans skipped and twirled and hugged as if it was the first step toward the second week in January.

"Getting a chance to win a game on the road like this is a dream for every football player," Williams said. "Tonight, lots of dreams came true."

Nightmares for the rest of Columbus, the Big Ten's best falling to the Pac-10's best once again, Jim Tressel's conservative play once again overwhelmed by the daring of Carroll, the rowdy place turned quickly somber.

"It was good to hear that silence," Barkley said.

It wasn't just that last drive that left fans dizzy. Barkley also engineered the final drive of the first half -- 77 yards, 48 seconds, zero timeouts -- that led to a field goal and a 10-10 tie at halftime.

The kid gets it. He just gets it.

"This is what you play for," Barkley said. "It was now or never."

It is now.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter.com/billplaschke

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