QB matchup takes a twist in USC-Stanford rivalry
The last time Matt Barkley and Josh Nunes played against each other came at the 2009 Under Armour High School All-America Game in Orlando, Fla., except the real competition came when they were away from the football field.
Try table tennis.
Barkley, now the Heisman Trophy favorite and a member of Southern California's ''Ping Pong Posse'' club on campus, has always had a love for both games. Nunes, the new Stanford starting quarterback, had never met Barkley until swapping strokes during breaks or late at night in the hotel game room.
''Very competitive guy,'' Nunes said. ''We played pingpong for hours.''
Things will be a little different when they meet again.
In a critical tilt for both teams and quarterbacks, Barkley and second-ranked USC (2-0) head north to face Nunes and No. 21 Stanford late Saturday afternoon in the first Pac-12 matchup of the season. And with Andrew Luck long gone for the Cardinal (2-0), the quarterback subplot in this California rivalry is taking a twist.
Barkley has beaten every team in the conference but is 0-3 against Stanford. Luck led a 55-21 rout of the Trojans in 2009, a last-second 37-35 win in 2010 and took a triple-overtime thriller 56-48 a year ago at the Coliseum.
Barring a rematch in the league title game Nov. 30, Barkley's last shot will come against a quarterback who has made two starts in the past four years and, unlike Luck, somebody he barely knows despite both calling Southern California home.
''I remember liking him as a player who was straightforward and didn't really mess around, loved to ball and respected the game and worked hard at what we did,'' Barkley said, recalling his time with Nunes in Orlando in a phone interview with The Associated Press this week. ''Other than that, it's all new.''
All the way around, too.
The rivalry that has spilled onto the national stage of late has been built largely on the quarterback play, which has led to dramatic drives, stunning upsets and fantastic finishes. Four of the last five years, however, the only quarterback smiling at the end was on the Cardinal sideline - a fact Barkley has been reminded of constantly.
''It's come on more recently,'' Barkley said. ''I think Andrew added a lot to that over the last couple years with how well he played. You look at the last two years, those games came down to the wire. I think that's kind of why it developed that relationship. They've earned a great reputation the last few years. I don't expect anything less this year.''
Nobody knows quite what to expect from Stanford's new signal caller when he finally faces a formidable opponent.
Nunes starred at Upland High School and had offers from more than 30 major colleges. He visited USC for a few ''Junior Days'' and even explored the possibility of pitching for the Trojans baseball team until deciding on a football path. Once Barkley, the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a junior, committed to the Trojans, Nunes said he ''kind of had the impression it wasn't going to happen'' at USC.
Not that he would've gone there anyway.
Nunes, surrounded by UCLA alums in his family, has been a Stanford fan since his father, Tim, bought his son a Cardinal cap when he was 8 years old. His first college game was watching Stanford lose 21-0 to UCLA at the Rose Bowl in 2004, and he took French classes in high school because he read Stanford accepted more students who spoke French than Spanish as a secondary language.
Nunes sat behind Luck the last three years - completing 1 of 2 passes for 7 yards in 2010 - and didn't even practice most of last season after tearing a ligament underneath his right big toe when he stepped on running back Andrew Stutz's foot on the third day of training camp. Nunes has completed 32 of 56 passes this season for 400 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
All Stanford coach David Shaw has asked the redshirt junior to do so far is manage the running game and get the ball out of his hands quickly on mostly short throws. And that's all he's asking Nunes to do against the Trojans.
''The worst thing he can try to do is try to compete with Matt Barkley,'' Shaw said. ''We're not in that business. We're not playing that game. We're going to play our game. We're not going to compete statistically.''
Based on experience, how could he?
Barkley, who attended Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, is a fourth-year starter who has thrown for 559 yards and a nation-best 10 touchdown passes with one interception in two games this season. Similar to Luck last year, Barkley will likely be the NFL's No. 1 overall pick and has been the front-runner for the Heisman since he decided to return to USC for what he called ''unfinished business.''
Clearly, Stanford is on the top of that list.
Barkley also has All-American Robert Woods and Marqise Lee - the more electric of the two so far this year - as receivers. But he takes exception to anybody who tries to minimize his skills at quarterback because of the talent around him, as Shaw did unintentionally last year while outlining Luck's credentials.
''I don't see myself as an average quarterback that's just exploiting them because they're great,'' Barkley said. ''But I consider myself a top-level quarterback who's pushing them to the extreme and bringing the best out of them to even further what they do on the field.''
The two quarterbacks understand the attention will be on them but are quick to point out they are game planning against the defenses and not each other.
Even in all the hoopla the last three seasons, Barkley said he rarely had a chance to watch Luck, spending most of his time on the sideline talking to coaches and getting ready for the offense's next possession. Nunes had a front-row spot for both - but was third-string behind Brett Nottingham on the sideline. That doesn't mean they both won't sneak a peek every now and then.
''It is just kind of cool,'' Barkley said, ''to see great quarterback play.''
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