SALT LAKE CITY — His Heisman Trophy gone, his team's national title hopes faded, Matt Barkley probably wondered what else could get snatched from him.
How about the football? By some runny-nosed Utah sophomore? On USC's second play of the game? How about Nate Fakahafua not only grabbing the ball out of Barkley's hands, but toting it eight yards for a touchdown?
And, oh yeah, then it got worse, Utah scoring again less than two minutes later after recovering another bad snap that the stampeded Trojans quarterback couldn't handle.
The bobbing, roaring Thursday night sea of red at Rice-Eccles Stadium approximated the color on Barkley's face. It was 14-0 before the ESPN cameras were hot, before the towering background of the Wasatch Mountains grew dark, before Barkley could breathe at the altitude of a city where he had hit rock bottom.
Before you could say … defining moment?
Turns out, this was it. In a season where Barkley needed a U-turn, this is where he took it. After a moment in which he has never looked worse, Barkley never looked better. He rebounded to miss on just seven of 30 passes while throwing for 303 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-28 victory that answered this season's nagging quarterback questions.
Barkley can't pass downfield? He essentially clinched the victory early in the fourth quarter throwing the ball 60 yards in the air on an 83-yard touchdown pass to Marqise Lee. You could almost feel the frustration leaving Barkley's pumping fists as he ran giddily downfield.
When told afterward that it was his career-long pass for a touchdown, he softly muttered, "Wow."
When asked how he caught it, Lee simply said, "He put the ball in the air, and I just ran and got it."
Barkley can't elude a strong rush or throw on the run? The comeback actually started with that sort of play, when he was caught in the backfield deep in Utah territory on third down after the Utes' first two scores. Barkley shook his way out of two large arms, stepped up and hit Lee across the middle for 18 yards, beginning a drive that ended in a three-yard Silas Redd run for a touchdown.
"The quarterback played really well," said Coach Lane Kiffin, simple but highest praise from a guy who throws around quarterback compliments like injury reports.
Barkley is not a strong on-field presence? He not only led them back from a two-touchdown deficit in a loudly intimidating environment, but he did it with the sort of class evident as he stood on the sidelines after those two touchdowns. Many other quarterbacks would have confronted the center who had just botched two of the first four snaps, but Barkley stood by himself amid the jeering fans as if accepting all the blame. Khaled Holmes, the center, responded by calling the team together in the locker room afterward and apologizing.
"He's my best friend," said Barkley, shrugging.
Not that it was all good for USC. While Barkley made a statement, the Trojans are probably still searching for one. After all, this was Utah, one of the worst 2-2 teams breathing. This was a defense that allowed Arizona State to score on its first five possessions two weeks ago. This was an offense that ranked last in the Pac-12.
The Trojans came back, but did so with 14 penalties worth 100 yards. The Trojans came back, but mistakes forced the comeback and prevented a much bigger, perhaps more appropriate blowout.
"We obviously helped them by not performing well early," said Kiffin, adding, "But at the end of the day, as you go through your season and your team builds itself, those things are good … if you can rally from that as we did, and not go in the tank and not start pointing fingers."
The comeback overshadowed a scary moment at the end of the first quarter, when receiver Robert Woods was apparently knocked silly while throwing a block on a punt return. He lay on the ground for a few long moments, rose to his feet, stumbled, rose to his feet again, then dizzily fell face first on the giant red "U" at midfield.
It looked as if he suffered some sort of a head injury. Judging from the sideline tests administered to him by as many as seven USC trainers and doctors, it was apparently feared to be a concussion.
Woods passed the test — actually laughed through it — and was sent back on the field after missing just one play. However, nobody was laughing when he immediately turned inside on a pass that Barkley threw to the outside.
Woods eventually settled down enough to catch a six-yard touchdown pass from Barkley that gave USC the lead late in the first half. But in this age of concussion enlightenment, I spent the rest of the game scared for him.
In an era where the dangers of repeat concussions are well known, the USC doctors were quickly making what was clearly the game's most important decision.
"For him to go back into the game, a lot of guys would have stayed out awhile," said Kiffin. "That shows what kind of tough kid he is."
Toughness doesn't always equal smarts. Here's hoping in this case, it was truly both.