Matt Barkley is a golden god of the gridiron, one of the most venerated quarterbacks in USC's long and storied history of venerated quarterbacks. He's a first-class gentleman who helps little old ladies across the street, says grace before dinner and is the kind of crew-cut, blond-haired guy every parent would be thrilled to have dating their daughter.
But he's not a better pro prospect than Brett Hundley, the UCLA freshman poised to show the world his wares Saturday afternoon in the annual cross-town clash at the Rose Bowl.
Like the other recent Trojan QBs who couldn't duplicate their collegiate success in the pros -- Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and John David Booty -- Barkley's weaknesses have been exposed in his final season.
There's a reason why Barkley, the pre-season Heisman Trophy favorite, is not even in the discussion now when it comes to Heisman candidates. And it's not just the 3 Trojan losses that have knocked the team's ranking all the way down from pre-season No. 1 to No. 21 entering tomorrow's game.
Start with his 13 interceptions. Several of them have been game-changers that directly contributed to Trojan losses. And several more have been inexplicable throws right to opposition defenders who needed to do nothing more than reach out and say thankyouverymuch.
Other than all those picks, his stats have been impressive this year -- 2,972 passing yards and 33 touchdowns. But how could they not be, with Marquise Lee and Robert Woods, the best pair of receivers in the country, as his top two targets? Lee is so good that he has eclipsed Barkley as the Trojan's best player. He's a legitimate Heisman candidate and likely a future star in the NFL.
Barkley's biggest problem is when he tries to throw a deep out across the field, an absolute must-have-in-his-arsenal for any starting NFL quarterback. Too often the football hangs in the air just begging to be picked off. Trojan insiders insist that Barkley is hiding an early-season shoulder injury, one reason USC Coach Lane Kiffin has been so paranoid about shielding his players from the media, especially at practice. And it's the reason, they say, that the offense has been such a dink-and-dunk affair, with so few opportunities to try a vertical pass deep downfield.
While it's true that Barkley's arm doesn't appear as strong an in previous seasons, his lack of a rocket-arm has merely exacerbated his second weakness: His inability to scramble, buy time for his receivers and make a positive play when the defense has taken away his primary targets.
And that mobility happens to be Hundley's biggest advantage over Barkley. He has a cannon for an arm -- 2,735 yards and 24 touchdowns this year -- more than equal to the one Barkley displayed in past seasons. But his best asset is his panther-like movement, his scrambling ability that produced six rushing touchdowns this year. When the offense bogs down, when gritty running back Jonathan Franklin isn't finding the holes to pile up yardage and the receivers can't get open on their initial routes, Hundley can juke defenders out of their shoes and run for first downs, or scramble and find once-covered receivers who have circled back and gotten open.
That's the quality that ultimately will make him a better NFL quarterback than Barkley. He has the physical tools to be an elite pro. Barkley, who has "NFL career backup" written all over him, does not.
Even though USC leads the historic series by 46-28, Trojan-Bruin games are notoriously unpredictable -- remember 13-9 UCLA back in 2006? But one thing is easy to predict: USC won't win 50-0, as it did last year.
That's because Hundley, a 6-foot-3 red-shirt freshman, has led the once-woeful Bruins all the way back to an 8-2 record and the No. 17 ranking in the country. And when was the last time the Bruins entered the backyard brawl as the higher-ranked team? You'd have to go all the way back to the 1990s.
While the winner of this game traditionally wins L.A. bragging rights for the next 12 months, there's a lot more at stake than usual. This year the winner will top the Southern Division of the PAC-12 and advance to the PAC-12 championship game against undefeated Oregon. An upset win there would put the team in the Rose Bowl come January.
Early odds favor the Bruins slightly, in part because of Hundley's emergence as Barkley has regressed. But the Bruins also feature a bunch of other legit pro prospects: 6-foot-7 tight end Joseph Fauria, shifty running back Jonathan Franklin, dominant defensive lineman Datone Jones, running-back-turned-linebacker Anthony Barr and power punter Jeff Locke.
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The 7-3 Trojans only have Lee, Barkley (whose draft stock is rapidly dropping), solid-blocking center Khaled Holmes and hard-hitting safety T. J. McDonald as potential pros.
But the game will almost surely turn on whichever quarterback turns in a better performance: the 22-year-old Barkley in his last shot at the Bruins, or the 19-year-old Hundley in his first shot at the Trojans.
Put your money on the kid on the rise -- it's always the smart play.
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