Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley couldn’t have asked for a much better birthday present than the one he gave himself Saturday afternoon at MetLife Stadium.
Unfazed by the unfamiliar rain and wind brought on by an ominous east-coast thunderstorm, the senior — who turned 22 Saturday — tied his own school record with six touchdown passes in the Trojans’ 42-29 win over Syracuse.
Overall, the victory was largely forgettable for a No. 2-ranked USC team with BCS championship aspirations, as the Trojans struggled to put away a pesky ‘Cuse squad that battled harder than most expected and trailed just 21-16 at the end of the third quarter.
But Barkley, who surprised some fans last spring when he decided to return for a fourth season at USC, put on the kind of nearly flawless performance that may have already cemented his place among the nation’s Heisman favorites as his team improved to 2-0 on the season.
“I thought he played really well,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. “(It was a) weird environment today — weather issues, wind issues — and I thought he took care of the ball really well. You didn’t see a lot of passes where guys were knocking them down or making plays on them. … I thought he was very accurate and ran the offense very well.”
One might look at the rest of Barkley’s passing totals, 187 yards on 23-of-30 passing with a long of 29 yards, and view them as somewhat pedestrian. After all, in his previous two 6-TD performances — in wins over Colorado and UCLA last season — Barkley threw for 318 and 423 yards, respectively.
But in a game that was delayed more than an hour at halftime by a torrential rainstorm that sparked tornadoes around the New York City area, that kind of ball control and attention to detail was exactly what Kiffin wanted to see.
“We wanted to make sure we tried to get some momentum in the game,” Kiffin said. “Coming into an environment like it was today was just kind of weird. We were on the road, and it’s their Super Bowl, and they’re going to throw everything at you. So I was just making sure we got completions and tried to run the ball. When you throw it downfield, turnovers happen or sacks cause fumbles.”
Some of the credit for Barkley’s reliance on the short pass should also be given to Syracuse (0-2), which caught USC off-guard and took away some of the deep passes that the Trojans figured to have at their disposal.
“They actually played a lot more cover-3 than we expected,” Barkley said. “We were expecting a lot of cover-4 and thought we might get more shots down the field over the top. But that wasn’t the look early on . . . so I did have to be patient with the ball and check it down when you have to and not force the ball deep.”
It also didn’t hurt that Kiffin and Barkley got a stellar performance out of the running game, with USC’s running backs and receivers combining to rush for 275 yards in the win.
Penn State transfer Silas Redd led the Trojans with 107 yards on 15 carries, including a 40-yard rush to set up USC’s final touchdown of the game. Southern Cal also got 76 yards on one carry from star wideout Robert Woods, who took a double reverse down to the Syracuse 4-yard line to start a fourth-quarter drive. Wide receiver Marquise Lee also had one carry on a reverse of his own that went for 23 yards.
And with that kind of firepower at your disposal, who needs to throw downfield?
“I think our running game really complimented us through the air today,” Barkley said. “They were on fire and opened up some big holes, which forced the safeties to play back a little bit. That puts Robert and Marquise on an island, and I know if it’s 1-on-1 with them, I’m betting on our guys.”
When he wasn’t rushing the ball, the junior Woods was busy hauling in 11 passes for 66 yards and three touchdowns. The sophomore star Lee caught 10 passes for 93 yards with two touchdowns of his own.
Barkley’s sixth touchdown pass went to sophomore tight end Xavier Grimble, who warded off three Syracuse tacklers on a physical 22-yard touchdown to give USC a 28-16 lead 34 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Barkley’s only misstep was on an interception early in the third quarter — on one of his few attempts downfield on the soggy afternoon.
“We tried it once,” Kiffin joked after the game, “and he threw it to the other team.”
Now USC will head back to the comforts of the west coast, where they’ll take on No. 25 Stanford next weekend in Palo Alto to open the Pac-12 portion of its schedule. The long flight should give the birthday boy Barkley plenty of time to savor his record-setting performance in Saturday’s win.
“He got a happy birthday song from the team,” linebacker Dion Bailey said of the birthday celebration. “And he’s probably going to get a lot of Twitter shout-outs later.”