Commentary

Trouble on the road? Not for USC QBs

Updated: September 11, 2009, 12:46 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Motivation is a mental thing. But when asked to gauge Ohio State's level of incentive to play USC on Saturday, Trojans tailback Stafon Johnson went straight anatomical.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesMatt Barkley will get his first taste of an opposing road crowd Saturday.

"It's going to be a big football game," Johnson said. "They're going to go balls out."

So there you have it. Johnson now joins Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the quotes-that-might-make-my-head-coach-wince club.

Really, though, the discussion of this game belongs below the belt. Everyone wants to see what kind of onions USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley brings to the Horseshoe.

Brassy enough to lead the Trojans to another victory over Ohio State, and their 23rd straight regular-season nonconference win? Or is there shrinkage in front of 102,329 frothing, fermented fans in Barkley's first collegiate road game?

"I would think he's going to have fun with it," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "And he's going to be excited to see what it looks like to be in an opponent's stadium of that stature and all. And then he's going to go play. I don't think it will matter to him at all."

The USC record book backs Carroll's confidence. This is the program that will go anywhere in September and play anyone -- and win big. The experience level of the quarterback has varied considerably, but the result never does.

The Trojans have won seven straight road openers -- six of them against big-six conference opponents. Average score: 43-12. The opponents: Colorado, Auburn, Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Arkansas, Nebraska, Virginia.

Not a cupcake in the bunch. And not a single close game.

It's vital to note that USC won the turnover margin in every one of those games and was a plus-16 overall. It's also vital to note that every starting quarterback excelled -- and that Carroll was not overly conservative with any of them.

[+] EnlargeMatt Leinart
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMatt Leinart's 2003 campaign started with a big win at Auburn.

Carson Palmer launched himself toward the 2002 Heisman Trophy by completing 22 of 30 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown in a 40-3 beatdown of Colorado. That game signaled USC's return to prominence.

In 2003, unknown Matt Leinart shocked everyone by riddling heavy favorite Auburn for 192 yards and a touchdown on 17-of-30 passing. The next year Leinart picked apart the Hokies for 272 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks to start his own Heisman season, and as a senior blitzed Hawaii for 332 yards, three TDs and one interception.

In 2006, everyone fretted about John David Booty -- until he lit up Arkansas for 261 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Booty did the same to Nebraska the next year, completing 19 of 30 passes for 144 yards and two scores.

And last year it was Mark Sanchez's turn, ripping Virginia for 338 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

None of those quarterbacks was smothered in bubble wrap. Each threw a minimum of 29 times in those games, and on average USC ran the ball only eight more times (40 per game) than it threw it (32 per game).

Can Matt Barkley now replicate his predecessors?

Palmer, Leinart, Booty and Sanchez all were young once -- but none was a true freshman starter. Even as thickly hyped and obviously mature as Barkley is, the Newport Beach, Calif., product remains a teenager. And if you stick a teenager in a stressful situation, there is no telling what might transpire.

Today, Jeff Byers is a sixth-year senior offensive lineman at USC. Way back in 2004, when the Trojans opened against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., he was just trying to avoid hurling on his cleats.

"We traveled all the way across the country, it was my first game," Byers said. "Neutral field, supposedly, but I think there were 5,000 USC fans and all the rest were for Virginia Tech. I just remember it ringing in my helmet because it was so loud. I will never be that nervous again."

Which is why you have to ask: What if Barkley is that same freaked-out freshman Saturday?

"He's a pretty even-keeled guy," Byers said. "I don't think he's going to get too worked up. It was a good thing to get that first game at home [against San Jose State] and get the jitters out. Everyone is talking about his stats [15-of-19 for 233 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions], but his poise was more impressive than anything."

Carroll concurred.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesTerrelle Pryor knows what it's like to be the freshman quarterback.

"Everybody was watching, and I think the really exciting thing about that is he knew everybody was watching," Carroll said. "He knew all the focus that was on him, and it didn't faze him, and he played the way he was capable of playing, which was really cool."

Johnson, another senior, said he never saw any cracks in Barkley's confidence in the huddle.

"To be honest, he kind of surprised us," Johnson said. "That's what makes him who he is."

While Barkley is playing, Pryor will be watching from the opposing sideline. Last year Pryor was the true freshman quarterback the nation was talking about -- but he didn't start when the Buckeyes went to the L.A. Coliseum and were steamrolled 35-3.

The starter then was Todd Boeckman, who was overmatched by USC's fast, ferocious and experienced defense. Pryor played plenty, throwing nine passes and running 11 times -- but this year he's the hub of the Ohio State offense.

"A year ago when you saw him he was obviously thrust in the situation with very limited experience and he's still not a wily veteran by any means," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "He's a true sophomore that has a totally different supporting cast around him. He had Beanie Wells and [Brian] Robiskie and [Brian] Hartline and some vets around him a year ago. Now, from a playing standpoint, he's kind of a veteran.

"That's a little bit daunting for a young person to be the guy with the most experience. I think he's grown a lot through those experiences. He understands the game much, much better."

The last time USC faced a quarterback with Pryor's physical gifts? Vince Young ran the Trojans out of the Rose Bowl with the national championship on the line.

The last time USC brought a true freshman starting quarterback into a setting this balls-out hostile? Forget it. Never happened before.

But you won't find anyone in the Trojans' camp willing to publicly worry. Not about stopping Terrelle Pryor, and not about propping up Matt Barkley.

"Just keep the maturity, keep the poise," Johnson said. "If our youngest freshman can do that, we'll be all right."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.