When Matt Barkley stood in front of that sparkling Christmas tree in Heritage Hall and spoke about “unfinished business,” there was little doubt in the minds of most USC football fans – the Trojan family was about to be witness to greatness.
There was talk of a National Championship, a Heisman and so much possibility, probability, maybe even certainty.
Now, just over a year to the day that the masses in cardinal and gold at the Coliseum chanted “One More Year” as the clock ran down on one of the most lopsided victories in school history, the culmination of one of the most impressive seasons by a USC quarterback ever, most Trojan fan are looking back and wondering, “What happened?”
The Trojans entered this season as the number one team in the nation, destined for Miami and a shot to prove themselves after a two-year bowl ban. Now, unranked with a 7-5 record, the more likely destination is El Paso.
Barkley started this season as the Heisman front runner. Not only will he miss out on New York again this season, he barely managed an honorable mention on the All Pac-12 roster.
Where did it all go wrong?
The answer requires a look back at 2008, because unfortunately for Barkley, the disappointment of this season is simply the past repeating itself.
In 2007, a 17-year-old Matt Barkley became the youngest player and first junior to ever win the Gatorade National Player of the Year and the Gatorade National Male Athlete of the Year. He was awarded the Glenn Davis Award as the top high school football player in California and the Joe Montana Award as the best quarterback in the country.
He completed 62% of his passes, threw for 3,560 yards, 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Mater Dei finished 9-2
He completed his junior season with all the momentum in the world leading into his senior year. But he stalled.
More specifically, he started to throw interceptions, doubling his total from the year before from nine to 18.
In 2007, he had just three multiple interception games and never threw more than two interceptions at a time. In 2008, he had six games with multiple interceptions, including two four-interception outings to start and finish the season.
Barkley’s high school senior season also saw his other passing stats dip. His touchdown total dropped to 23, down 12 from his junior year. His passing yards dipped to 2,887.
Of greatest concern, his accuracy plummeted from 62% to 54%. In six of his 12 starts he completed less than half of his passes. For comparison, he threw below 50% just once as a junior.
Mater Dei ended the season 8-4, and Barkley, though still a highly touted recruit, finished the season on a low note with one of his worst games ever in a playoff loss to Tesoro, throwing for 36%, one touchdown and four interceptions.
Flash forward to 2012 and the similarities jump out instantly.
Barkley was electric as a junior at USC and the offense he managed in the second half of the season was among the best in the country. But more importantly, he was efficient.
He completed 69% of his passes, just once dipping below 60%. He amassed 3528 yards and set the all-time Pac-12 record for touchdown passes in a season with 39. All the while he threw only seven interceptions.
Entering his senior season as a Trojan, Barkley once again had all the momentum in the world. And again, he stalled.
Just as it had been in high school, Barkley’s senior year has been characterized by interceptions.
This season, Barkley has more than doubled his passing turnovers, from seven to 15. As a junior he had just one multi-interception game. As a senior he had six. In 2011, he finished the season with two interceptions in four games. USC was undefeated in those games. In 2012, his final four games featured nine interceptions and the Trojans went 1-3.
Continuing the parallel, Barkley’s senior season at USC finished with a lower completion percentage, down six to 63%, less total yards, down to 3273, and less touchdowns, down three to 36 (though he did play one less game).
USC has as much talent on offense as any team in the country, but everything runs through the quarterback. The Trojan’s strong finish at the end of last year started and finished with Matt Barkley. And the Trojan’s weak finish this season is also a reflection of Matt Barkley.
Maybe he got over confident. Maybe he hit his peak too early. Maybe he tried to do too much.
When voters cast their ballots and placed USC at number one in the preseason, when Trojan fans begged for one more year, they did so with the expectation that Barkley would build upon his junior season. That’s what senior quarterbacks are supposed to do.
Instead, he regressed, throwing more interceptions as a senior in 2012 than he did as the first true freshman starter in USC history. Which, by the way, is exactly what he did at Mater Dei in 2008.