Barkley won’t be fresh meat for Buckeyes

A year later, the guy who ran an interception back 48 yards for a touchdown, is gone. Same for the other All-American linebacker. And the quarterback who threw four touchdowns against Ohio State. He’s gone, too.

USC has no Rey Maualuga, no Brian Cushing, no Mark Sanchez. Rather, the face of this year’s team is that greatest rarity in big-time college football, the true freshman quarterback. His name is Matt Barkley. He was 19 on Tuesday, and the biggest crowd he’s ever played for was last fall against Servite High School of Anaheim. It was Angel Stadium, he recalled, with about 25,000 fans in attendance. That’s a big number, especially for a high school kid. But it’s woefully inadequate in preparing him for what he’ll see this Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.

“I never played in anything like what Ohio State is going to be,” he said, as he says most things, quite cheerfully.

Ohio Stadium, known as The Horseshoe, will hold 105,000 rabid, red-clad partisans. What’s more, last year’s gifted freshman quarterback — Terrelle Pryor — is now a sophomore, having acquired the one thing Barkley lacks: experience.

Maybe that, along with the aforementioned reasons, is why the Trojans are only favored by a touchdown, down from 10.5 last year at the Coliseum. Still, even as the spread narrows, the presumption against Ohio State, and the Big Ten in general, only grows.

The first week of the college football season brings more of the same. Illinois is humiliated by Missouri. Iowa ekes out a win against Northern Iowa. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes barely survive Navy. Maybe they were already thinking ahead to this week. Or maybe, like the rest of the Big Ten, they’re just not what they’re cracked up to be.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Jim Tressel’s team. It gets tiresome. But more than that, the Buckeyes don’t have to play USC. Ohio State could be like Penn State, which finds itself rewarded for refusing to schedule a decent out-of-conference team. Still, with Pete Carroll 6-0 against Big Ten schools, and his average margin of victory at 21 points in these games, I don’t know a single person who thinks the Trojans will lose — beginning with their true freshman quarterback.

One hundred and five thousand on the road in his second college game? No problem.

“That won’t affect me,” said Barkley. “I don’t care what they say. I don’t care what color they’re wearing … I’ll imagine they’re all cheering for us.”

At 19, Barkley’s belief seems unshakable, if unchallenged. Nothing seems to crack his composure, or diminish his happy expression. His smile remains ready, and those placid blue eyes register no threat. “I’m not feeling any pressure,” he said.

“It’s difficult to be a freshman and play college football, and it’s most difficult to play quarterback,” said Carroll. ” … We have a very unusual, unique guy … I don’t think he’s like most guys. He wouldn’t be in the position he’s in if he couldn’t deal with it … He’ll handle himself quite well.”

The immediate issue is the wall of sound that might hinder Barkley’s signal calling. Toward that end — in hopes of bolstering what Carroll calls his quarterback’s “communication skills” — eight huge JBL speakers were positioned about the USC practice field the other day to simulate the ungodly roar. You had to cover your ears after a while. But Barkley played it off like a lullaby.

“These speakers are great,” he said. “I can barely hear myself shouting at the line of scrimmage.”

No matter. Barkley assured everyone he had a suitably loud voice. And if he couldn’t make himself heard by shouting, he had mastered the proper signals. Whatever the situation, he said, “I’ll deal with it.”

Part of this confidence is natural, the demeanor with which he was born. But there’s also an element of indoctrination. Having graduated high school a semester early, Barkley promptly matriculated at USC, accelerating his progress as one of Carroll’s quarterback-disciples. Finally, there’s the issue of talent, not his, but those around him.

Barkley finds himself in a position unlike Pryor, with whom he played in a couple of all-star camps. Pryor needs to be a star for Ohio State to have a chance in a game like this. Barkley only has to recognize what he has and share the ball.

“I’m not in this alone,” he said, citing his assortment of running backs. “I can just hand the ball off and watch them be athletes.”

Watch 105,000 fans get real quiet. “We know what we’re doing,” said the true freshman. “We’ll just run our plays and score points.”

Seven more than the Buckeyes. At least.