Matt Barkley threw four touchdowns in USC's season opener against… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Matt Barkley flew east anticipating what he called "a blast of a weekend."
And why shouldn't he?
USC's senior quarterback, the Heisman Trophy front-runner, will celebrate his 22nd birthday Saturday. And he will do it on a huge stage.
As part of what is already a football-crazed week at MetLife Stadium, home of the NFL's New York Giants and Jets, Barkley leads second-ranked USC (1-0) against Syracuse (0-1) in a game dubbed "New York's College Classic."
On Wednesday, Tony Romo led the Dallas Cowboys over Eli Manning and the Giants. Barkley and USC invade Saturday. And former Trojan Mark Sanchez will start for the Jets against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday — with Tim Tebow waiting in the wings.
It's difficult — OK, almost impossible — to upstage that kind of NFL star power and back-page headline potential, but USC is doing all it can to make sure Barkley leaves a lasting impression.
This week, Barkley's image has been streaming across a video board in Times Square. Ostensibly, it's part of USC's "We Play" marketing campaign. It's also an opportunity to expose Barkley and offset, preemptively, any perceived East Coast bias.
Not that Coach Lane Kiffin believes there is much.
"That's overrated," he says.
Kiffin cites his years as a Trojans assistant, when USC players won the Heisman three times in four years.
Carson Palmer came to New York in December 2002, strode into the Downtown Athletic Club and became the first USC quarterback to win the Heisman.
Two years later, quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush made a December trip to a midtown hotel, where Leinart became the second USC player in three years to collect the Heisman. Bush finished fifth.
Bush and Leinart traveled to a Times Square concert theater a year later and Bush won a Heisman he ultimately would be asked to return.
So, if all goes as planned for Barkley and the Trojans, who are 26-point favorites, Saturday's game could really just be Barkley's warmup act for an expected return to New York in three months for the Heisman ceremony.
And he might have a teammate in tow.
Last week, Barkley passed for 372 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-10 victory over Hawaii.
But Marqise Lee stole the spotlight. The sophomore wide receiver turned a short pass from Barkley into a 75-yard touchdown reception and returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
Lee is taking the Heisman buzz in stride.
"If I'm on it, 'yay!'" he says. "If I'm not, so be it."
Meanwhile, Kiffin continued a drumbeat he started last season, saying after the Hawaii victory that Lee will be the best receiver in USC history.
"That's super pressure," Lee says, laughing. "It's crazy. . . . It's a thing where it motivates me."
Barkley and Lee aren't the only Trojans under pressure.
USC slipped from No. 1 to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll this week. Not a big deal, but the Trojans do not want to waste an opportunity to impress voters and fans in the Eastern time zone, who often must stay up late to see USC on television.
The potential seems to be there for the Trojans to run up some big numbers. If its opener is any indication, Syracuse won't play conservatively hoping to keep the score close. In a 42-41 loss to Northwestern, Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib completed 45 of 66 passes for 482 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.
Syracuse rolled up 596 total yards, but also had three turnovers, losing two fumbles along with the interception.
And so, like his teammates on offense, linebacker Dion Bailey is looking forward to making an impression. He is also excited about playing in an NFL venue, which the Trojans also will do next month at Washington.
"It just feels like being a step closer to your dreams," Bailey says. "You want to be playing there on Sundays someday.
"You want to make it a great appearance."
Or as Barkley might say, a blast.