There are, in life, things that’ll always seem incomplete: a piece of art you can’t quite seem to add the finishing touch to or a home-cooked dish missing that spice giving it the extra kick. These circumstances puzzle us. We’re left scrambling to understand what is, in fact, missing. Why didn’t it turn out the way we hoped? Eventually, we’ll smile, shrug and hum along, and attempt to make the best of our efforts.
I imagine, in a way, this is how we’ll come to view the Matt Barkley era.
Unless the right-handed senior signal caller makes some sort of dramatic return for a December bowl game, we’ve watched him take his last snap under center in cardinal and gold. USC coach Lane Kiffin announced Sunday night that Barkley would miss the Trojans’ regular season finale against top-ranked, undefeated Notre Dame at the Coliseum because of an AC sprain suffered in last Saturday’s matchup at UCLA.
Let’s be honest, this might very well be it.
It’s odd, but for Barkley, who has started more games at quarterback than any player in school history, his career at USC feels like it’s still missing something.
That’ll forever remain the great irony of Matt Barkley. He’s thrown more completions, more yards and more touchdowns than any other USC or Pac-12 passer. But we’ll always be scrambling to provide meaning to his chapter in history.
No, 2012 — and his four-year career for that matter — didn’t unfold like we all thought it would. The portrait of Matt Barkley was to be without a blemish.
He was, as Kiffin put it last December, the “Perfect Trojan, Matty Trojan.” He was the blue-eyed, blonde-haired quarterback from Orange County who would rescue USC from its darkest hour — NCAA sanctions in June of 2010.
That was the narrative. That was what was expected, a feel-good story too good for even a Hollywood script. The Trojans’ 2012 season would be like some cinematic masterpiece with Barkley leading the program toward the top of the college football universe.
We’ve been expecting as much since he set foot on campus in January 2009 and was tapped as the starter seven months later. Noted then-coach Pete Carroll at the time: “He’s ready to be the guy for us.”
At 18, he was ready. Except — no matter how many touchdown passes he’s thrown since his first game against San Jose State on Sept. 5, 2009 — we’re still searching to uncover the context of his career.
It’s easier for others.
For Matt Leinart, it was consecutive national championships and a 34-game winning streak. For Carson Palmer, it was a Heisman Trophy and a berth in the Orange Bowl, underpinning a return to national prominence. For others such as Rodney Peete or Mark Sanchez, it was trips to the Rose Bowl, the “Granddaddy of Them All.”
But for Barkley, what does his career represent, exactly? He threw touchdown upon touchdown, but in what defining moment?
It’s of course difficult to fault him for the circumstances, but the circumstances are still there. For two of his four seasons, USC was prohibited from participating in the postseason.
Despite a 10-win season in 2011, there was no Pac-12 championship game or Rose Bowl berth. There were 12 regular season games and that was that.
We’ll always ask, “what if?” What if the conditions had been different? What if Carroll stayed? What if the NCAA penalties never arrived? What if the team survived road showdowns versus Stanford, Arizona and UCLA earlier this fall?
Much like the circumstances, his accomplishments are followed by a “but.” He threw for more than 100 touchdown passes over his career, but 23 came in games against Colorado and Syracuse. He orchestrated road wins over top-10 teams Ohio State and Oregon, but the former was followed by four losses during the season and the latter came in a year when USC wasn’t bowl eligible. Barkley and the Trojans began this season as the Associated Press’ preseason No. 1 team, but they’ve already stumbled four times.
In spite of the numbers, we’ve never quantified USC quarterbacks solely by statistics and by their records. No matter how many passes Heisman winners Leinart or Palmer launched, we remember certain moments: a pass on fourth-and-nine in the waning seconds of a win at Notre Dame, a smattering of Iowa in the Orange Bowl in January.
Barkley’s resume lacks that singularly defining play or game. It lacks that kick.
Maybe we’ll remember his unwavering commitment instead. It’s often been said Barkley said yes to USC three times: once in high school by signing a letter of intent, once in the wake of sanctions by declining to transfer and once in 2011 by opting to stay for his senior season, leaving NFL millions behind.
Maybe it’s the way he represented the university, organizing missionary trips to Africa and to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
Maybe it’s the fact he helped keep USC above water when the program could’ve easily drowned.
Maybe it is the numbers, a sign he made the most of his play on the field during trying times.
“I played up and down,” Barkley said outside the visiting locker room following Saturday’s 38-28 loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl. “I thought I fought as hard as I could’ve fought. I went down fighting.”
Though business will remain unfinished for Barkley, maybe his lasting legacy is that: he fought. He fought and fought tirelessly for four years. He fought when it could have been expedient not to. And that shouldn’t be undervalued.
But in five years or a decade from now, will we remember any of that?