STANFORD, Calif. — Matt Barkley, after the visitor’s locker room had cleared out, stepped into the night and stood in front of a table that had food splayed on it for the USC football players. Barkley took a burrito wrapped in foil and a sport drink, then walked up the long flight of stairs to the team bus.
It was hard to imagine much of anything tasting good.
Barkley, who might have been a top-five NFL draft pick last April, returned for his senior season for many reasons: playing in a major bowl game, winning the Heisman Trophy and completing USC’s road back from scandal to national-championship contender.
He most assuredly did not return for this, a night when everything seemed to fall apart, both for Barkley and the second-ranked Trojans, who lost to Stanford, 21-14.
“Yeah, it hurts,” said Barkley, trudging up the stairs, when asked if this was his toughest loss. “I don’t know what it is. I can’t pinpoint it. It doesn’t feel good.”
Barkley, usually loquacious and good-natured, was unusually succinct, both at his postgame press conference and on his walk to the bus. If it was not the two interceptions he threw, the fumble he lost or his inability to rally the Trojans that muted his demeanor, then it was surely the relentless Stanford pass rush, which sacked him four times, punished him many others and helped shut out the Trojans in the second half.
“That defense, did they play lights-out, my goodness,” said USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the longtime NFL defensive coordinator. “I didn’t know their front seven was that fast.”
It is also hard to know how badly USC’s national title hopes will be dented by the loss, their shortcomings displayed on national television. But the hit they take in the rankings will surely be a test of how credible the Pac-12’s early-season resurgence has been. The conference has scored some significant early-season victories: UCLA over Nebraska, Arizona routing Oklahoma State and Oregon State beating Wisconsin. Earlier Saturday, heretofore dismal Cal gave a strong account in a 35-28 loss at Ohio State.
“Last weekend was a big statement and it set the narrative for the season,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said.
Or so he hopes.
If the Trojans’ national-title hopes are undone, it would rob media of a delicious storyline — the former SEC mechant enfant Lane Kiffin likely playing against that conference’s champion.
While Kiffin has largely avoided the missteps that marked his career at Tennessee (and with the Oakland Raiders), he did step in it this week when USC banned Los Angeles Daily News beat writer Scott Wolf from practice because he, uh, reported news: that kicker Andre Heidari had knee surgery after the season-opening win over Hawaii.
This apparently violated an edict from Kiffin that reporters not report injuries.
Scott, the conference commissioner, said Saturday that when the conference’s athletic directors meet next month, they will likely discuss a uniform policy on injuries with an NFL-style injury report a possibility.
Kiffin, asked if it was a distraction: “I promise you I didn’t spend very much time thinking about that. That didn’t have anything to do with why we didn’t run the ball today.”
What is apparent is that the Trojans, who closed last season on a tear — losing in triple overtime to then-unbeaten Stanford, thumping Oregon in Eugene and demolishing UCLA — are not now a team that might threaten to end the SEC’s national dominance.
In fact, Stanford looked like the type of team best equipped to stand up to Alabama with its dominating line play, physical defense and punishing running attack.
Stepfan Taylor rushed for 153 yards on 27 carries, and also caught five passes for 60 yards, scoring two touchdowns. And Josh Nunes might not be Andrew Luck, but he’s not bad – throwing a pair of scoring passes and scrambling for a pair of key first downs.
Mostly, though, it was the stellar play of their front seven that distinguished the Cardinal, and allowed it to overcome three missed field goals by Jordan Williamson.
They took away USC’s running game, holding Silas Redd, the Penn State transfer, to 17 yards on 13 carries — temporarily knocking him out of the game — and then teed off on Barkley. Stanford frequently blitzed its middle linebackers, Shayne Skov and A.J. Tarpley, while at the same time dropping its defensive ends into coverage, all while running twists and stunts. The scheme seemed to befuddle the Trojans, who were playing without senior center Khaled Holmes, who sprained his ankle last week against Syracuse.
“There were more games, more blitzes, more formations,” guard John Martinez said. “All the looks, it was nothing we hadn’t seen before. We just weren’t communicating. Our heads weren’t right. We need to be more physical.”
The Trojans were so beaten that when they got the ball back at their own 11 with 2:44 left, the possibility of a signature drive by Barkley soon evaporated into desperation.
Barkley hit Marqise Lee, who made a beautiful adjustment and just got his foot down for an 18-yard gain on fourth-and-5. Then he hit freshman Nelson Agholor for 20 yards to the Cardinal 46. But tailback Curtis McNeal was dropped for a 3-yard loss, the Trojans were called for holding and a false start, and Barkley was sacked twice, leaving him with a fourth-and-40 (!) heave to Robert Woods that fell incomplete and out of bounds.
“You guys heard the talk,” said Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner, who had two tackles for loss. “You turn on ESPN, all they’re talking about is USC-Stanford but not a word about Stanford. It’s all about Woods and Barkley and Lee and Heisman trophies. I won’t say we were insulted by it, but it definitely motivates you to want to put your best foot forward.”
Gardner was not sure if Barkley was flustered, but he knew that with Woods and Lee — who are widely considered the best receiver tandem in the country — they had to get to Barkley, who was sacked only eight times all of last season. Woods and Lee caught 12 passes Saturday, but for only 138 yards combined.
“There’s definitely a greater sense of urgency to get home and get to Barkley, because you know if he can get the ball out of his hands, you never know when it can go all the way to the house,” Gardner said. “We used that as extra fuel today to give us a little extra juice up front.”
Stanford coach David Shaw said the Cardinal had little choice but to get after Barkley.
“You have to,” he said. “If you sit back there, the quarterback is too good. Regardless of what happened tonight, that is the best quarterback in the country. If you give him too much time, he will kill you.”
And that is what had to be gnawing at Barkley. He did not play poorly, completing 20 of 41 passes for 254 yards, but he did not do what a great quarterback does — cover up his team’s shortcomings.
If his line could not block, his backs could not run and he could not always be on target, he could at least rescue his team. It was what Luck did last season.
And that, as much as anything, has to be killing Barkley.