College football out west features a pair of impressive heavyweight contenders in the USC Trojans and Oregon Ducks. Their respective quarterbacks, Matt Barkley and Marcus Mariota, captain two very different attacks, but they are the central command to their lethal scoring.
On one side are the traditionally rich Trojans, who were once led by legendary backs like O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen. This is no longer Tailback-U, but a cardinal red and gold factory for quarterbacks, receivers and exceptional athletes.
Their Northwest antagonists are the nouveau riche Ducks, who once passed behind standouts Dan Fouts, Danny O’Neil and Joey Harrington. This is no longer an air show, but a collective of speedy track athletes wearing garish colors and patterns like heroes on a Star Trek spinoff.
There are two months of football still to be played, but each team and their vociferous fanbases will cast one eye toward the other. The road to BCS glory must be traveled through Southern California, and only one can be left standing for the ultimate prize.
Matt Barkley has seen the booms and busts of college football. Three years ago, he was Pete Carroll’s golden boy, a true freshman who quickly guided the Trojans into the top 10 before the chatter turned to fellow freshman Andrew Luck.
Barkley’s career was undermined by controversial NCAA sanctions. He fought on for two prime years outside of the BCS party while coach Lane Kiffin and the USC program assembled key pieces to defend Troy and prepare for its own attack.
Meanwhile, Barkley was the face of the program—often brilliant, occasionally inconsistent. He piled up numbers that rivaled Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, but bowl games were off the table, and the Trojans were mostly off the radar.
Barkley may have taken his talents to the NFL last winter had it not been for the Trojans’ 38-35 statement win over the Ducks at Autzen Stadium last year. It was then that the entire country bore witness to the most lethal passing attack in the country. Not that USC fans were unaware.
And now the Trojans have stormed into the 2012 season behind the AP Poll’s preseason No. 1 ranking. The irrepressible and often-quoted Barkley has not only survived, but he has embraced the challenge front and center to lead his team to the national championship game.
He will be throwing to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee—one of the great receiving tandems seen in college football. Barkley is the ever-indispensable trigger man who possesses the experience, grit and talent to lead his offense to explosive scoring not seen since the days of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.
Above all, he is a tough competitor. He knows he has one more shot and he will not let his team falter through a lack of effort or motivation. He has waited too long for this.
Dennis Dixon Version 2.0
Marcus Mariota has barely completed one half of a college football game, but what a half it was. It was the kind of freshman debut that had Ducks fans quacking from Eugene to Miami. Rarely does a potential phenom exceed the hype and prop up the hopes to impossible expectations.
Coming into 2012, Ducks fans were optimistic. Even college football pundits had pegged Oregon at No. 5 despite the uncertainty of who their quarterback would be just two weeks ago.
Many have long compared Mariota’s talents to former Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon. Others were just hoping he could hold things together while running backs Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas carried the load.
Mariota’s debut was a lightning assault—even by Oregon standards—to the tune of seven touchdowns on seven drives and a 50-3 first-half lead. Above all, he did not look to scramble; he stood in to make his reads and deliver the football to his playmakers.
He delivered precision passes to receivers who did not break stride. And he ran out of trouble the few times he needed to reset.
Mariota’s performance may have brought even greater balance to the Oregon attack. Though they collected their usual 297 yards rushing, they passed for 308 yards and utilized several receivers.
Coach Chip Kelly may be in better position to launch the passing needed to offset elite powers like USC, Alabama and LSU, but he will need time and development from Mariota and his team.
Mariota will also encounter adversity, poor decisions and big hits from Pac-12 opponents. His resilience will be tested even before dueling Barkley. It’s a road much longer than the 854 miles on I-5 South.
One Game at a Time
USC takes on Syracuse on Saturday afternoon in its next game. The Trojans hope to put the squeeze on the Orangemen, who fell 42-41 against Northwestern. Nothing short of a dominating win will satisfy the Trojans.
Oregon will host Fresno State about the time the Trojans finish up their portion of the doubleheader. The Bulldogs are fresh off their own easy 37-10 win over Weber State, but they will certainly hope to disrupt the Ducks and their newest star.
It’s only Week 2 of college football, and maybe it’s too early for Trojans and Ducks fans to pay much attention to that other team.
But we can pretend that they will care.