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Stanford 21, USC 14: Matt Barkley’s Struggle In The Spotlight

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With the spotlight squarely on his shoulders Saturday night in Palo Alto, quarterback Matt Barkley delivered one of the more forgettable performances of his career. As USC fell, 21-14, to Stanford, the preseason Heisman front-runner went just 20-for-41 for 254 yards and two interceptions in front of a national audience.

As I watched the game live, I thought Barkley’s performance was ugly. But after re-watching the game and charting the data, Barkley’s effort looked even worse. Coming off a "numbers look better than he actually played" victory last week against Syracuse, a showing I called "one of his more conservative efforts in recent memory," Barkley had one of the worst performances of his career against Stanford.

After the Trojans’ game versus Syracuse, we discussed how Barkley’s success in the (very) short passing game overshadowed an otherwise mediocre performance. Stanford obviously had a similar impression when watching the Syracuse game tape and made a concerted effort not give Barkley the same amount of gimmies as Syracuse. Against the Orangemen, Barkley went 15-for-17 for 100 yards and one touchdown on passes thrown three or less yards from the line-of-scrimmage. Against Stanford, Barkley went just 5-for-14 for 34 yards on the same type of passes.

Compounding the fact USC had very little success running the ball against a stout Cardinal defense, the Trojans’ inability to use short passes as an extension of their running game put them in several unwelcoming third downs. As we pointed out in the charting against Syracuse, a game in which USC attempted just three passes over 13 yards downfield, at this point in the season Barkley does not seem comfortable throwing the ball vertically. Again against Stanford, Barkley’s struggles in the vertical passing were exposed. On passes traveling 12 or more yards from the line of scrimmage, Barkley went just 5-for-14 for 90 yards and an interception.

USC’s inability to throw the ball down the field has forced them to consistently depend on shorter routes in third-and-long situations. With such a talented receiving corps, exceptional runs after the catch have consistently bailed the Trojans out in their first two victories. On Saturday against Stanford, that simply was not the case.

While most viewers remember USC’s last drive, one in which Stanford was seemingly unblockable, overwhelming pressure was not a factor throughout the entire game. For the most part, Barkley had ample time in the pocket to make throws, but on many occasions he elected to rush passes as if he felt the pressure was closer than it actually was. But when Stanford did create some pressure, Barkley’s complete inability to scramble didn’t help. There was not a single play in the entire game in which Barkley scrambled from the pocket to extend a play or evade the rush. Barkley’s inability to move eventually led to several hurried passes and contributed in part to five sacks by the Stanford defense.

In hindsight, the one thing USC should have done more is spread the field by using their empty-backfield formations. When USC went with an empty-backfield, it forced two things: 1) Stanford had to declare much earlier where their pressure was coming from, and 2) Stanford’s large outside linebackers had to match up in space, an assignment the Cardinal would like to avoid.

On the five plays in which USC went with an empty-backfield, Barkley went 5-of-5 for 102 yards. If USC truly wanted to exploit their talent-advantage on the outside, they should have stuck with what was working and forced Stanford’s big men to play in space (something Oregon has exploited against Stanford).

Over the past two weeks, USC’s limited passing game has been exposed. There is no questioning the talent of their receiving corps, but Barkley’s ability to get them the ball downfield will be the key to the Trojan’s success the rest of the season. While quick decision-making and getting rid of the ball quickly are two attributes of a good quarterback, patience is also vital. Going forward, Barkley needs to exhibit a bit more patience and let USC’s passing game develop downfield. Barkley is simply too talented to be the dink and dunk quarterback he has become in recent weeks.