- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009

Southern Cal will formally introduce Matt Barkley to the nation Saturday night at No. 8 Ohio State.

It’s hard to imagine a more difficult environment for a quarterback to make his first road start than Ohio Stadium, where 105,000 scarlet-clad crazies routinely conspire with Jim Tressel’s signature defenses to turn veteran signal-callers into frazzled mush. Tossing a true freshman into such a bear pit may seem sadistic, but Barkley isn’t an average freshman.

“Matt is totally atypical,” said Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll, who has spent the better part of the past decade mentoring Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez. “Most freshmen have moments when they get a little shook up, but I don’t think there’s an excitable bone in Matt’s body. He carries himself with the composure of a much more mature player.”

Barkley certainly looked like a veteran last week when he completed 15 of 19 passes for 233 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in No. 3 Southern Cal’s 56-3 rout of San Jose State. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Orange County product grew up going to Southern Cal games at the Coliseum. Last week wasn’t so different. He simply had a role in the Saturday show he had been watching for years.

“It felt slow out there. I felt calm,” Barkley said. “I don’t really get nervous, and at the same time, I’m not going to get super pumped-up.”

Three of Barkley’s four incompletions were intentional throwaways. The fourth was a near miss on a fade route. So the first true freshman ever to start an opener at Southern Cal managed the game without a single true miscue.

“I love Matt’s comments,” Carroll said. “He said he was nervous walking down the steps and then after that, he wasn’t. His first game ever? Come on, man. He had to give more than that. But he wasn’t [nervous]. He was very much composed.”

Maybe that’s because Barkley is accustomed to pushing the ETA of excellence. Not only was Barkley the top-rated quarterback in last year’s recruiting class, but he also is unquestionably the most decorated quarterback recruit of the Carroll era at Southern Cal (2001-present).

In 2005, Barkley became the first freshman to start for Santa Ana’s Mater Dei High School (Leinart’s alma mater) since Todd Marinovich. In 2007, he became the first nonsenior named Gatorade’s national player of the year.

Unlike Ohio State counterpart Terrelle Pryor, who started as a true freshman in Southern Cal’s 35-3 romp against the Buckeyes last season in Los Angeles, Barkley’s prep ranking was based on polish, not potential. Barkley isn’t 6-foot-6 with 4.4 speed like Pryor, but he does have a powerful arm, flawless mechanics and superb poise.

After graduating from high school a semester early and enrolling at Southern Cal in January, Barkley bolted past Arkansas transfer and junior backup Mitch Mustain on the depth chart in spring practice. He was close to catching spring starter Aaron Corp when the sophomore went down during fall camp with a fractured left fibula. By the time Corp returned a week before the opener, Barkley had been running first-team reps for more than two weeks, dazzling Carroll with his command of the playbook.

But is he ready for the Buckeyes and the Horseshoe?

“I would think he’s going to have fun with it,” Carroll said. “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. That’s just the way he’s been and how he’s handled things. He has such confidence and such comfort in his own skin.”

Barkley also has the comfort of being protected by one of the nation’s best offensive lines and supported by unquestionably its deepest stable of running backs. Last week, the Trojans rolled up 334 rushing yards and six touchdowns with their five-headed tailback hydra of Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, Marc Tyler and Allen Bradford.

Factor in Southern Cal’s recent dominance of Ohio State and the Big Ten - nine straight victories over the conference by an average margin of 24 points - and the Buckeyes might be under more pressure to perform than Barkley. Ohio State has lost five straight games to teams ranked in the top five dating to Florida’s 41-14 demolition of the Buckeyes in the 2007 BCS title game.

“I think this is a huge game for the [Big Ten] because of what’s happened in some of these bigger games in the last two or three years,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback. “In our subjective world, you can only go by the nonconference and bowl games, and the Big Ten has struggled mightily in those two areas. So Ohio State is not only carrying its own flag into this game, but they’re carrying the Big Ten flag as well.”

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