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Matt Barkley's USC career ending with a whimper — but no whining

A season that began with national title and Heisman Trophy dreams for Barkley will end unceremoniously with 7-5 Trojans in Sun Bowl. But you won't hear him complain about how things turned out.

December 22, 2012|By Gary Klein, Los Angeles Times
  • Matt Barkley walks down the field during USC's 21-14 loss to Stanford in September.
Matt Barkley walks down the field during USC's 21-14 loss to Stanford… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The day after USC's November loss to UCLA, Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley made his way to Coach Lane Kiffin's office and sat down on the couch.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Barkley had been flat on his back on the rain-slicked Rose Bowl turf, a crunching hit from a Bruins linebacker injuring his right shoulder and forcing him to leave the stadium with his arm in a sling.

Now, with the senior's season and USC career possibly over, a somber Kiffin tried to console the player who passed up the chance to earn NFL millions and came back for a final campaign with the Trojans.

TIMELINE: College football 2012-13 bowl schedule

But it was Barkley who provided perspective.

"Remember Coach," Kiffin recalled Barkley saying, "this is a sport. This doesn't define who I am."

If there truly is some emotional pain there, Barkley is keeping it well hidden. And he's certainly not talking about it.

Barkley has not practiced for the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech, has not addressed the local media in weeks and has declined requests for one-on-one interviews.

"He doesn't want to be the focus right now," an athletic department spokesman said.

It's an unexpected but perhaps understandable turn for a 22-year-old who returned for a shot at winning a national championship and the Heisman Trophy but experienced a disappointing 7-5 regular-season finish instead.

Senior center Khaled Holmes, Barkley's teammate since high school at Santa Ana Mater Dei, said that behind closed doors the two team captains were at times "down in the dumps" about the way their final season was playing out. Barkley "maybe more so because of what he gave up to come back and the opportunities he had," Holmes said.

Barkley, though, remained positive in public and with teammates.

"But, you know," Holmes said, "he's human too."

——

Barkley's smile stretched the width of the giant Coliseum videoboard.

He had just established a Pac-12 Conference record for career touchdown passes, and now thunderous cheers from more than 80,000 fans rained down on him during the Trojans' Oct. 20 game against Colorado.

Barkley happily mugged for a sideline camera that projected his larger-than-life image to an adoring crowd.

It was the last time in 2012 that Barkley looked so joyous on a football field.

Ten months earlier — a year ago Saturday — Barkley had stood up in front of a giant, sparkly Christmas tree in Heritage Hall and announced during a nationally televised news conference that he would put off entering the NFL draft, citing "unfinished business" and hinting at glory awaiting a USC program emerging from some of the most severe NCAA sanctions in college sports history.

But shortly after the season began, things started to go awry.

In September, Stanford pummeled Barkley and surprised the No. 2 Trojans, putting a national championship and the Heisman in doubt. USC rebounded with four consecutive victories, but then lost four of its last five games, the shoulder injury forcing Barkley to sit out the regular-season finale against Notre Dame for the second time in three years.

The Heisman front-runner became a Heisman afterthought. His draft stock slipped.

Those who know Barkley best say his strong Christian faith and character prevent him from answering questions with anything but total honesty.

And Barkley remained candid this season — at least until the Trojans began their season-ending downward spiral with a late-October defeat at Arizona. As losses and his interception total mounted, Barkley seemed increasingly subdued, as if hesitant to speak his mind.

Early this month, he apparently could no longer hold it in. During a national radio and television interview on Dan Patrick's syndicated show, Barkley lauded Trojans receiver Marqise Lee, who supplanted Barkley as USC's Heisman candidate. And then, without prompting, he added that at times the Trojans focused too much on the sophomore and that "we could have done a better job of utilizing other players."

The comment hinted at Barkley's frustration over Kiffin's play-calling.

Kiffin rebutted the comment the next day, but he acknowledged last week that Barkley's season did not play out as planned.

"I don't think anybody could have ever pictured the season going the way it did," he said.

——

When former USC coach Pete Carroll bolted to the NFL in January 2010, Matt Barkley faced the media and assured teammates, fans and fence-sitting recruits that everything would be fine.

Five months later, the NCAA hammered the Trojans with a two-year bowl ban and other penalties for violations related to former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. It was Barkley who stood before reporters in Heritage Hall that day. His message: The Trojans will persevere.

Barkley certainly did.

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