Jake Locker wins battle ... this time
Matt Barkley fell short against the Huskies' leader, but they likely will face off again
LOS ANGELES -- Unless the scouts have gone batty or somebody's career flies suddenly off track, Saturday night at the Coliseum wasn't the last time Matt Barkley and Jake Locker will look at each other across a football field.
Next time, I'd venture to say, it will be on a Sunday. The money will be a lot better -- it was even for Reggie Bush -- but it couldn't possibly be more fun than this.
I'm not sure why, but even as Washington was muddying the Pac-10 race a little further and kicking USC into the nationally irrelevant bin with Saturday's thrilling 32-31 win at the Coliseum, I couldn't help boiling it down to the two quarterbacks. They're so different. They're both so good in distinct ways.
But with the noise level growing and the game on the line, the guy in his fifth year made clutch plays, one after the next. The guy in his second year misfired on the two key shots that could have won the game and kept this (probably silly) hope of an undefeated USC season afloat.
Locker -- who threw for 310 yards, ran for 110 more and practically impaled the ball in receiver D'Andre Goodwin's chest on a fourth-and-11 throw in the last drive -- choked with emotion on the field after Erik Folk nailed the 32-yard field goal that won it.
Locker probably cost himself millions of dollars by returning for his senior season, so this had to mean something, probably more than most of us could ever understand. His decision to pass up surefire first-round money wasn't looking too good for a while, what with labor uncertainty in the NFL looming and with the Huskies coming into this game at a wobbly 1-2.
But he made his call, and Saturday was the cosmic payoff.
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"I talked to the guys before the game and told them just to leave everything out there, man. 'Play with no reserve, don't hold anything back,' and that's what they did," Locker said. "I couldn't be happier. I wouldn't want to be with any other bunch in the country. I love these guys."
USC was afraid of this. The stage was set two weeks earlier when Locker flailed in a blowout loss to Nebraska, completing just 4 of his 20 pass attempts.
"That was the worst thing that could have happened," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "I wish they would have won that game. They had two weeks to sit on a loss with that bad taste in their mouth. They came out with a great game plan today, and he executed it about as well as you can."
The Huskies just seemed to feel more comfortable in the moment. Before Locker even went to work on that final drive, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian met eyes with a small pack of reporters on the sideline and said, "Why don't you guys look very excited? It's a great game, come on!"
And afterward, asked to sum up what this meant to him, the ex-USC assistant said, "Outside of my children being born, it's the best day ever."
If you play in the Pac-10, winning at the Coliseum can do wonders for your program. And if you're USC, losing here tends to linger for years, maybe a generation or two.
Locker spoke highly of Barkley, hitting on the description that so many people have used for USC's 20-year-old quarterback: "He's a very poised quarterback for being a sophomore," Locker said.
But Barkley was devastated. He overthrew open receivers to stall USC's final two drives short of the end zone. He zipped one just out of David Ausberry's long reach early in the fourth quarter. After Joe Houston hit a field goal, the Trojans appeared to be in decent shape nevertheless. Then, Barkley overthrew tight end Jordan Cameron near the goal line on the Trojans' final drive. That one will leave a lasting sting, especially after Houston missed a cozy little 40-yarder to set up Locker's theatrics.
And yeah, those four interceptions in the previous two games were on Barkley's mind. He was trying to put the ball where only the receiver could reach them, but he instead put them where nobody could. Up until the fourth quarter, he had managed the Trojans' game plan like ... well, like a pro. USC largely ran it down the Huskies' throats, picking up 298 rushing yards. Barkley made the throws he was asked to until the end.
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He got banged by a defender at one point, spun and still fired off a 20-yard strike to Ronald Johnson in the third quarter. He finished a perfectly respectable 14-for-20 for 186 yards and no turnovers. But he felt the weight of a beaten-down fan base on his shoulders after the game.
"It's just unfortunate that, when it comes down to it, we don't capitalize on those passes when we had to," Barkley said. "I didn't feel like ... I just, like, we should have won that game."
Even while acknowledging that Barkley missed those throws, Kiffin showed admirable support for the kid who could make or break this ticklish moment in Trojans history. If Kiffin is going to rebuild this thing from the rubble of the NCAA sanctions, he's going to need Barkley.
"We're still growing together," Kiffin said. "As he gets older, the hope is that he makes those. We went against a senior quarterback who made those plays. He'll make those down the road."
What Saturday's game reminded me of was that stunning 2007 Stanford win here, the one that snapped Pete Carroll's Coliseum winning streak at 35 games. The Stanford win was a far bigger upset, of course, but it launched Jim Harbaugh's program on its way. Maybe that's the debt Steve Sarkisian's Huskies will owe Locker one day.
One man who was here for both of them saw it that way.
"I thought about that game here at the hotel earlier today," said Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt, an ex-USC assistant. "I remember when Stanford came in here with a new program and came away with a win. Now, look what they're doing. We can do that, obviously, and we've just got to keep battling."
One thing was pretty obvious after Saturday. Nobody's afraid of playing in the Coliseum anymore, especially not a guy like Locker who has been around the block a few times.
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.