Disappointment? Distractions? Declining performance? Controversy and allegations? Criticism and even ridicule?
All are words or phrases one could associate with USC’s football program at present. Yet none seems to touch Matt Barkley.
Perhaps one big reason that coach Pete Carroll is such a fan of his quarterback is that the true freshman’s sunny disposition matches his own, even during dreary times.
And these are dreary times for the Trojans.
After seven consecutive Pac-10 championships and BCS bowl berths, they dropped four conference games, finished tied for fifth in the standings and will play unranked Boston College in the Emerald Bowl on Saturday.
And USC didn’t just get beat this year. It got blown out by Oregon and Stanford and seemed indifferent during a loss to Arizona in the season-finale.
Oh, and there’s this little matter involving running back Joe McKnight and the alleged use of a 2006 Land Rover owned by a Santa Monica businessman who employs his girlfriend that might raise an eyebrow from the NCAA. And then there’s three players ruled academically ineligible this week, including starting tight end Anthony McCoy and offensive tackle Tyron Smith.
Yet all one gets from Barkley is gee-whiz enthusiasm. That’s probably a good thing, by the way.
“We’re excited — we can’t wait for this game,” he said. “We’ve had a great last two weeks of practice preparing for the bowl game. We’re really stoked to get one last game in and to be able to finish the season strong.”
Barkley’s season devolved individually like the Trojans has a whole. He threw nine of his 12 interception over his last six games. He finished ranked seventh in the conference in passing efficiency and was mostly eclipsed in the Pac-10 quarterback pecking order by several other young starters, such as Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Arizona’s Nick Foles.
As to what triggered his and his team’s slide, Barkley isn’t specific.
“A lot of factors contributed — a lot of little things that we don’t have time to get into,” he said. “But overall execution is what it came down to. All those things piled up and we weren’t playing Trojan football like we know it.”
Barkley hardly deserves the predominant blame. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates struggled to find his rhythm in his first year replacing Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. Carroll also probably set the bar too high for Barkley by repeatedly calling him an “outlier” and casting him as a quarterbacking savant.
And, you know, the defense wasn’t exactly the impenetrable wall that has been typical during Carroll’s tenure.
Whatever the reasons — and it’s never just one thing, is it? — USC’s slide seemed to be greeted with glee across the college football landscape. It certainly inspired copious message board ripostes.
Barkley acknowledged that the Trojans are well-aware of the sniping of their critics.
So, is that motivation?
“Absolutely. Guys never like to hear how it’s been a terrible season and how bad we’ve done,” he said. “To be able to finish the season with a win will be huge. Not only to end this year but for next year’s off-season and how we approach that. A win on Saturday will be huge to right those wrongs.”
Barkley said sympathy — not distraction — was the reaction to recent off-field issues that will sideline two and probably three starters for Emerald Bowl.
“It’s really terrible that they can’t be with us,” he said. “But we’ve been dealt a lot of adversity this year, so it’s just another challenge for us in this last game. But it is really disappointing to know those guys can’t play.”
It seems many are expecting a flat and apathetic performance from the Trojans against Boston College. Barkley said that’s not going to happen.
“We’ll be up, definitely. We’re so excited,” he said. “We don’t care if it’s the Emerald Bowl. It’s another game we get to play. And Boston College is a great team. They are going to put up a fight. We’re not approaching this any differently than a Pac-10 championship game. We’re excited to play one last time.”