USC’s Barkley grows up a lot in win over Ohio St.

True freshman quarterbacks are supposed to make mistakes in big games.

USC’s Matt Barkley made his share Saturday night, but when it really counted, he delivered for the No. 3 Trojans in a thrilling 18-15 victory over No. 8 Ohio State.

This was in front of a record crowd of 106,033 at Ohio Stadium and against a team that was desperate to shed its big-game choker label no less.

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Down 15-10 with 7:15 left in the fourth quarter, Barkley and the Trojans took over at their 14. A sack and a false-start penalty later and they were facing second-and-19 at the 5-yard-line.

The packed stadium was absolutely rocking.

“I think my ears are still ringing a bit,” Barkley says.

Then came six minutes of hell for Ohio State fans.

Barkley led the Trojans on a 15-play, 95-yard touchdown drive that left the Buckeyes with little chance to recover.

Tailback Stafon Johnson scored his second touchdown of the game to put them ahead, but he never gets the shot at the end zone if Barkley doesn’t convert a fourth-and-1 rush several plays earlier. Barkley also converted a third-and-1 with a rush for four yards that preceded Johnson’s 2-yard score.

“I knew we were going to score,” Barkley says.

Then, with the score 16-15, Barkley hit tailback Joe McKnight for the two-point conversion.

USC coach Pete Carroll isn’t afraid to gamble, whether it’s going for it on fourth-and-1 or installing a true freshman at the most important position in the game. Or in this case, both.

No, Barkley didn’t do it all in that final drive. Heck, McKnight deserves plenty of credit for racking up 31 yards on five carries. This after being held to 28 yards on 11 carries up to that point.

But Barkley did make clutch first-down passes to McKnight (22 yards) and Anthony McCoy (26 yards). And he didn’t let his earlier gaffes or that crowd get to him.

And McKnight gave the credit to his young teammate anyway.

“He showed he’s not an 18-year-old anymore. He stepped up and made plays,” McKnight says.

Even the defense has his back.

Sophomore linebacker Chris Galippo says “He didn’t play like a freshman. I’ve never played in ann environment this hostile before, but he stepped up and proved he’s the man.”

No wonder Carroll stuck with the kid.

“I understood why a lot of people would question Matt, but he is a legitimate player,” Carroll says. “He showed us he could take the team through a fourth quarter in a tough environment.”

Barkley didn’t finish with gaudy numbers — 15-for-31 passing, 195 yards, no TDs and an interception. But, these stats don’t highlight the fact he got four clutch first downs in four tries. Not bad for an 18-year-old.

And now he’s picked up some major experience that’s bound to pay off when USC gets into its Pac-10 schedule.

After all, he did a lot of growing up Saturday night.