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This feels a lot like the beginning of Matt Barkley's farewell

The Trojans quarterback isn't tipping his hand, but common sense says he's blasting his way out of Los Angeles and into the 2012 NFL draft.

November 04, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley celebrates a 42-17 victory over Colorado by leading the marching band on Friday night at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo.
Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley celebrates a 42-17 victory over Colorado… (Justin Edmonds / Getty Images )

From Boulder, Colo. -- Sitting on a bench outside Heritage Hall on a warm late-summer day, Matt Barkley told me he would leave the USC early for the NFL only if he finished his junior season strong.

"I want to put myself in a position to go out with a bang," he told me.

Nearly three months later, on a chilly fall Friday night in the mountains, Barkley's play continued to make a noise so distinct, there is only way to describe it.

Bang! Barkley threw a school-record six touchdown pass in a 42-17 victory over Colorado.

Bang! In his last four games, Barkley has thrown for 18 touchdowns with just three interceptions.

Bang! Don't look now, but Barkley is blasting his way out of Los Angeles.

After the Trojans' victory in front of 50,083 fans at wonderfully cramped Folsom Field, Barkley acted like a quarterback savoring the last sweet lap of his college journey.

He ran to the sideline stands for a long hug with family members. He ran up into the end zone stands to grab a sword and direct the band in "Conquest." He did the sorts of things that Trojans stars do when they are saying goodbye.

"I've directed the band three times, so you can't read anything into that," he claimed, grinning.

The crowd certainly didn't want to read anything into it, as it began chanting as soon as Barkley lowered his sword.

"One more year … one more year … one more year."

When Barkley was asked about the chant, he shrugged and said, "Could be one more year."

Could be. Might be. But at this point, common sense says it probably won't be.

I didn't want to write that. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote nearly the opposite, noting the belief that perhaps Barkley's game was still human enough to convince him to stay one final year to lead the Trojans out of probation. But that was before he nearly led them to a victory over Andrew Luck and Stanford in a three-overtime game that captured the national football imagination.

Then, Friday, playing with that national stage to himself, playing in a state whose NFL team will be looking for a quarterback next spring, he occasionally resembled another No. 7 who once played here.

Throwing for 318 yards while completing 25 of 39 passes — a nice game even against the worst team in the Pac-12 — Barkley was bigger than the roaring black-shirted fans, bigger than the young Trojans offense, bigger than the occasional bad passes that threatened to rattle him. It is only a matter of time before the NFL scouts will convince him he is bigger than USC.

Earlier this year, there was talk that he would be taken late in the first round. But now scouts are putting him in the top 10, just below Luck and Oklahoma's Landry Jones, and how is he going to say no to that?

"I don't think about that," he said Friday night. "It's up to you guys to think about that."

When he does think about it, Barkley probably will think about the last two high-profile Trojans quarterbacks to turn pro.

In 2006, Matt Leinart stayed in college for one more year after winning a national championship. He eventually lost to Vince Young and Texas in the national-championship Rose Bowl and eventually dropped from the top three to 10th in the draft, beginning an NFL career that has languished.

In 2009, much to Pete Carroll's dismay, Mark Sanchez turned pro after only 16 starts, but he was drafted fifth and has been a rising NFL star since.

If Matt Barkley is truly ending this season with a bang, then everything would point to him taking that noise to the pros.

"I'm really feeling comfortable right now … but we have three more games to see how just how big of a bang it is," Barkley said.

The bang was at its biggest Friday on his fifth touchdown pass, on a third-and-12 play in the third quarter. Flushed out of the pocket, Barkley was handed nearly 10 yards of empty field. But instead of running straight, he stayed in the backfield and ran right, biding time while receiver Robert Woods was slithering open downfield. At the last moment he lofted the ball to Woods for a 45-yard touchdown pass that surely had the scouts smiling.

"That was kind of like backyard football," Barkley said. Quite the contrary, it was an example of his footwork, his smarts, his composure and his arm.

It was only one of several times when Barkley took adversity — sometimes of his own doing — and turned it into points.

Yes, he had several bad passes and one awful interception. But seemingly after every bad play, he shrugged off tacklers and doubt to connect on a good one, ending his touchdown siege with a screen that freshman Amir Carlisle ran into a 19-yard touchdown pass.

Barkley immediately pointed to Kiffin after setting the record, then later ran into his coach's arms.

"All the adversity he's faced here, all the changes, with a bunch of kids around him … he's done a great job," Kiffin said.

It is Kiffin who would be faced with the adversity if Barkley leaves, as Friday was the first time this season that another quarterback has taken a snap for USC, and it was veteran John Manoogian. Barkley's place in the offense will very likely be taken by a player — freshman Cody Kessler or Max Wittek? — who has never played in a college game.

When it comes to the status of the Trojans' most important player now and in the immediate future, indeed, the biggest bang has yet to be heard.

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