He did not lose his breakfast, did not mistakenly place his hands against the buttocks of an offensive guard and start calling the cadence. He barely had butterflies, Matt Barkley swore afterward. Did Barkley have any freshman moments on the day he became the first true freshman to start an opener at quarterback for USC?
"He might've called the wrong play one time," said wideout Damian Williams after the Trojans' 56--3 rout of San Jose State last Saturday. "But they all do that. Mark used to do it all the time."
It was the early departure of Mark Sanchez to the NFL that opened the door for Barkley, who plowed through it headfirst, wresting the job from redshirt sophomore Aaron Corp. The starter coming out of spring practice, Corp suffered a small fracture to his left fibula on Aug. 10. By the time Corp got back on the field two weeks later, coach Pete Carroll had all but made up his mind to go with his rifle-armed wunderkind.
So debilitated by nerves was Barkley that he could be seen an hour before kickoff ... throwing comically wobbly, lefthanded passes, just to get some laughs out of "my brothers," as he refers to his teammates. So oppressed by the magnitude of the moment was the 18-year-old that he trotted out to the huddle early in the second half and chirped, "This is fun, isn't it?"
It wasn't much fun in the first quarter, during which the offense struggled, the plucky Spartans took a 3--0 lead and a smattering of boos could be heard in the Coliseum. But then, using a template Trojans fans can expect to see plenty of this season, USC employed terrific line play to get the run going (Joe McKnight rushed for 145 yards and a pair of TDs on 14 carries), which in turn opened up the pass. The freshman completed 15 of 19 passes for 233 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. Of those four incompletions, Carroll was quick to point out, three were throwaways. The fourth clanged off the hands of tight end Anthony McCoy. "That's a pretty good day," assessed Carroll, laboring to measure his praise for the young QB—a struggle he usually loses. (In one 66-word span at his Tuesday press conference, Carroll described Barkley as "gifted," "amazing," "unusual" and "exceptional.")
A four-year starter at nearby Mater Dei High, the 6'3", 220-pound Barkley enrolled at USC in January so he could participate in spring practice. He surprised the coaching staff with his ability to absorb the offense and move the ball against the first-team defense.
"The initial expectation was that he probably wouldn't be able to hang," says Matt's father, Les, who was an All-America water polo player for the Trojans in the late 1970s. "For whatever reason, he was."
Les was in a business meeting on the morning of Aug. 27 when he got a call from Matt. "Can't talk right now," said the father. "I'll have to call you back."
"Well, O.K.," replied Matt, "but trust me, you really want to call back."
He had just been named the starter. The news came as little surprise to Bruce Rollinson, the Mater Dei coach who in the summer of 2005 caused jaws to drop by naming a freshman as his starting quarterback. This wasn't just any freshman. Barkley already stood 6'2", weighed 205, and had a howitzer. While he'd excelled during practice in seven-on-seven—"A million guys look good when no one's rushing them," notes Rollinson—the youngster also kept his head "against live blitzes. And I noticed that the older guys didn't have a problem with him. In fact, they gravitated to him." So we said, 'Let's throw the kid in there and see where it goes.'"