Barkley has no regrets about return to USC

The sideline at the Los Angeles Coliseum is going to be a lonely place Saturday night.

Matt Barkley will be surrounded by his teammates and coaches, but he’ll also be alone with his thoughts, knowing that the one thing he wants most of all — to quarterback USC in its face-saving game against Notre Dame — will be painfully out of reach. 

So will his last chance to salvage his legacy and put an appropriate finishing touch to his collegiate career. 

Rather than play one more home game in a Trojans uniform, Barkley will watch as USC attempts to end Notre Dame’s unbeaten season. In four years as starting quarterback, Barkley has never faced the Fighting Irish at the Coliseum. 

In 2010, an ankle injury prevented him from playing in a 20-16 loss. This season, it’s a sprained right shoulder he sustained Saturday when the Trojans were beaten by rival UCLA 38-28. Barkley went down under a hit from Bruins linebacker Anthony Barr, and his season went with him. 

“This is twice in a row now” that Barkley won’t get to face Notre Dame in front of his friends and family, USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “It’s the luck of the Irish, I guess.” 

It’s also tough luck for Barkley. Who knows what will go through his mind as he stands alone on the sideline? His senior season was expected to be his crowning achievement, culminating in a national championship and the Heisman Trophy and leading to his selection as the probable No. 1 pick in the NFL draft next spring. 

None of those will happen. The Trojans have lost four games and dropped out of the BCS top 25. Their loss to the Bruins eliminated them from a chance to play for the Pac-12 Conference title. Barkley beat UCLA three times but failed at a sweep. He leads the nation in touchdown passes (36), but has more interceptions as a senior (15) than he had as a freshman (14). 

He’s not exactly flaming out, but the suggestion this fall by athletic director Pat Haden that Barkley could go down as the “greatest Trojan of them all” doesn’t fly anymore. 

Haden was referring to more than athletics; he also spoke of Barkley’s academic success, community service and leadership. On those counts, Barkley warrants A’s across the board. But on the football field, he sits distinctly behind two former Trojans who captured Heisman Trophies — Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.

Of Barkley’s legacy, Kiffin said, “Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be what it should be. Part of that is going to be because of the injury and missing this game, and part of it is going to be something that’s out of his control. If we were playing defense like we were with Carson or Matt when they were winning Heismans, I think Matt would be on his way to New York [for the Heisman awards]. He can’t control that.” 

Barkley, of course, shouldn’t be faulted for choosing to return for a senior season, although it might cost him in next year’s draft. But he felt it was the right thing to do — “unfinished business,” as he said when he announced his decision last year. With USC off probation and bowl eligible, he wanted to be part of a team that returned to the NCAA’s good graces and contended for a BCS title. 

Those dreams went up in smoke in losses to Stanford, Arizona, Oregon and UCLA. And Barkley couldn’t build upon his remarkable junior season in which he threw for 39 TDs and just seven interceptions in the Trojans’ 10-2 season. 

Still, he has no regrets. So why question his decision? 

“There’s nothing you can do now,” he said after the UCLA game as he hid his injured right arm under a jacket. “Why sit and pout about it? It isn’t how I expected it to turn out.” 

The same could be said of the draft. In any of several mock drafts already being posted online, Barkley is listed as either a mid- to late-first rounder or isn’t listed in the first round at all. Last season, even in a deep draft for quarterbacks, he was considered a certain first-round pick. 

But nothing is certain now. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, but Barkley clearly is a work in progress, not a starter in the way that Andrew Luck of the Colts or Robert Griffin III of the Redskins are. Although there are needy teams likely to choose him and hope he develops quickly, he might be better off sitting and developing. 

“Did it make sense for him to stay in school? Yes,” said former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist, whose website, thefootballeducator.com, focuses on scouting and leadership. “I don’t think he was in that class of guys last year. He’s coming from SC, a pro-style system, but there are a lot of question marks if you start to break down his game.  

“Picking that high, there are going to be some interesting discussions across league about whether or not it’s worth bypassing some of the red flags that might pop up.” 

Those include Barkley’s arm strength and his ability to carry a team on his shoulders. But Sundquist also said, “It’s hard for me to envision him falling out of the first round.” 

Barkley will have a chance to prove he’s still first-round material when the Trojans finish their season. Kiffin said he believes Barkley will recover in time for one last shot at winning his final college game, in a bowl game still to be determined. 

It’s not the way Kiffin, Barkley or the Trojans hoped it would end, but it’s better than probation. And Barkley at least deserves credit for his decision to be true to his school, regardless of how his season turned out. 

In the end, maybe that’s how he’ll be remembered best — for his loyalty to USC. There are no regrets for that choice.