Commentary

Barkley shows he's got the right stuff

Updated: September 13, 2009, 10:11 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There are worse places for a freshman quarterback to be than his own 5-yard line facing a second-and-19 with a five-point deficit, time wasting and the entire state of Ohio screaming in his ears.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireMatt Barkley approached his biggest test with a smile.

Like San Quentin. Or the mouth of a shark.

Other than that, the situation in which Matt Barkley found himself at Ohio Stadium was about as bad as it gets.

It was in this most dire football circumstance that Barkley entered the USC huddle and … smiled.

"Matt came to us with a smile on his face and was just like, 'Let's get it done,'" Trojans center Kris O'Dowd said.

Really? He was smiling?

"Grinning," O'Dowd confirmed.

Did you think he was nuts?

"Maybe," O'Dowd said, grinning himself. "But I'm going to roll with it."

Oh, they're all willing to roll with this kid now. The Barkley bandwagon, picking up momentum for a month, is stampeding now.

Freshmen don't start at quarterback at USC. And freshmen don't come into a certifiable madhouse like the Horseshoe and beat the Buckeyes. And freshmen certainly don't beat the Buckeyes by leading long, dramatic, game-winning drives in the final minutes.

It's on his [Barkley's] shoulders, and he did it. He was so not like a freshman. [Mark] Sanchez, [Matt] Leinart, [Carson] Palmer -- I don't know whether they could have done that.

-- USC linebacker Chris Galippo

Until Barkley did all those things.

"Pretty cool, isn't it?" Trojans coach Pete Carroll said. "That was really good.

"The questions everyone was asking about Matt are totally legitimate. All we can tell you is that the guy is really special."

After producing precious little offensively all night, Barkley conjured the kind of crunch-time magic that separates special quarterbacks (such as John Elway and Joe Montana) from merely talented quarterbacks (such as Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor). Against an excellent defense, he delivered the most devastating drive the state of Ohio has seen since Elway crushed the Cleveland Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. Barkley led USC to an 18-15 defeat of the Buckeyes that sucked the sound from a record crowd of 106,033.

But as tempting as the comparison is to Elway and The Drive, a better analogy might be what Montana did to the NFL team from the other end of this state, the Cincinnati Bengals, in Super Bowl XXIII in 1989.

Montana began the winning drive in that game at his team's 8-yard line. Before the first play, according to folklore, Montana looked into the stands and quipped to his teammates in the huddle, "Isn't that John Candy?"

This time, Barkley bopped into the huddle beaming.

"We all smiled," receiver Damian Williams said.

By the time this drive was finished, the Trojans were howling. Rejoicing. Embracing. Winning a potential national championship elimination game that had appeared lost for much of the night.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPete Carroll gave his freshman quarterback the keys to the offense in the final minutes.

The official stats say Barkley led the Trojans for 86 yards in 14 plays, scoring the clinching touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:05 left. The truth is that after a sack and a false start, USC was 19 yards from a first down and 95 yards from a touchdown.

The Shoe shook with noise, as Buckeye Nation anticipated the validating victory that has escaped it since January 2003.

For USC, the situation wasn't hopeless, but you could see it from there. That's when Barkley's arm and tailback Joe McKnight's legs saved the night, one play at a time.

First came a McKnight draw for 11 yards. Then, on third-and-8 from the 16, Barkley found McKnight on an option route against a linebacker and hit him for 21 yards.

Credit assistant offensive coach Jeremy Bates, the Trojans' first-year playcaller, with dialing up just the right stuff at just the right time.

"You've got to believe we're going to find a way," Bates said. "And we did."

The spark of hope from that initial first down of the drive became a bonfire. Barkley then drilled tight end Anthony McCoy on a seam route for 26 yards down to the Ohio State 37. At that point, you could hear the entire stadium pucker and feel the Barkley legend building.

The next eight plays were either passes or quarterback sneaks by Barkley or runs by McKnight, the superstar recruit who has matured from a duck-and-dodge specialist into a more physical runner as a junior. Finally, on first-and-goal at the 2, Stafon Johnson took a handoff and danced outside the right end to score untouched. Then Barkley passed to McKnight for two points and an 18-15 lead.

"It's on his [Barkley's] shoulders, and he did it," linebacker Chris Galippo said. "He was so not like a freshman. [Mark] Sanchez, [Matt] Leinart, [Carson] Palmer -- I don't know whether they could have done that."

Barkley could. Barkley did. Then Barkley grinned and shrugged, less awed by his precocity than the rest of us.

"This is what it's supposed to be, and what I came here for," he said. "It is kind of surreal, but it's what I've always wanted."

For Ohio State, the victory it has craved for years over a big-boy opponent disappeared in the final minutes.

The Buckeyes can blame their coach, Jim Tressel, for his trademark play-not-to-lose conservatism -- they squandered supreme field position time and again. Tressel's most questionable move was bypassing a 53-yard field goal in favor of one of his favorite plays -- the pin-'em-back punt. Kicker Aaron Pettrey can kick 50-yarders -- if he's given a chance.

He wasn't Saturday, as Tressel waved in the punting unit from the USC 36. The Buckeyes downed the ball at the Trojans' 14 -- which only set the stage for the winning drive.

And Buckeyes fans also can shake their heads over Pryor, the splendid physical specimen who often looks ordinary.

In this battle of young quarterbacks, sophomore Pryor had the ball last. More than a minute remained on the clock when the Buckeyes took over at their own 36-yard line, but they made nothing happen. Pryor was pressured by USC All-American safety Taylor Mays into an intentional grounding penalty on first down, scrambled for 14 yards, then threw incomplete twice.

Just like that, the night was lost. And 15 games into Pryor's college career, he's still waiting to have the kind of moment Barkley enjoyed Saturday night.

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

ALSO SEE