USC QB DERBY: A Dark Horse Gains on the Leaders

Paul PeszkoSenior Writer IAugust 15, 2009

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Quarterback Mitch Mustain #16 of the USC Trojans warms up before the 95th Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi against the Penn State Nittany Lions at the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2009 in Pasadena, California. The Trojans defeated the Nittany Lions 38-24.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

While it may be a matter of too little, too late, the dark horse in this year’s quarterback derby at USC is finally making his move on the two leaders.

On the precipice overlooking a plunge into quarterback oblivion, Mitch Mustain now stands on the cusp of challenging for the No. 2 spot and possibly even the coveted starter’s role.

I know what many USC fans will say I’m off my rocker. It will never happen. I admit that may very well be true. (Not the part of being off my rocker.) But all I am saying is, in a year when a 50-1 shot wins the Kentucky Derby, heck, anything can happen.

So, just what has happened? Well, first Aaron Corp went down with a cracked fibula and may be out another week or more. This gave freshman phenomenon Matt Barkley the chance to run the No. 1 offense. And run it he has.

Barkley’s deep ball has usually been on the money, whether he has been throwing with the ones or the twos. But until Thursday morning, all three USC quarterbacks had been interception-freealthough both Barkley and Corp have had some dropped picks.

But on Thursday morning, Barkley threw three picks. To his credit, Barkley rebounded in the afternoon and made smarter decisions by either checking down or throwing the ball away and did not give up any more picks.

Mustain also showed a penchant for making smarter choices, something he had not done in the past two seasons. He not only remained interception-free but completed numerous passes both in the morning run-through and in the afternoon team drills.

Then on Friday, while Barkley threw another pick to go with his one TD pass, Mustain out-gained the freshman in total yardage. Barkley went 10-for-17 and 120 yards, one TD, one INT, and one rushing TD on a designed quarterback run.

Making smart check-down passes, Mustain went 14-for-16 for 154 yards, one TD. In all, he led two scoring drives without a pick. The first was a 12-play, 84-yard drive, ending with a two-yard run by Curtis McNeal. Mustain went 6-for-6.

The second one was a seven-play, 75-yard drive, ending with a 28-yard TD pass to another freshman phenomenon, De'Von Flournoy. Mustain went 5-for-6 on that drive

In a team meeting last evening, Coach Carroll praised Mustain’s effort saying, "He made very smart decisions and did a very nice job."

In this morning’s run-through, the Trojans practiced three "backed-up" situational series from the two-yard line. Both Barkley and Mustain each lead a winning drive, gaining two first downs to get the Trojan offense out of a deep hole.

Then during a third-down situational period, the offense converted on 5-of-8 of their tries from various distances. Mitch Mustain's group went 3-for-3.

Later during the team period, Mustain connected with Ronald Johnson for a real classy 20-yard touchdown strike in the right corner of the end zone.

Of course, pundits will point out that Mustain’s work has been with the second and third offenses against the second and third defenses while most of Barkley’s reps are with the first unit.

My response is that the right decision is the right decision no matter which unit you are working with and a bad one is a bad one. And bad decisions were something that Mustain had been prone to make regardless of which unit he directed.

So, why the big change all of a sudden?

Here’s my take. Mark Sanchez, Aaron Corp and Matt Barkley all had a decided advantage over Mustain since they played high school ball right here in Southern California on powerhouse teams that in many way mirrored the West Coast offense style of the Trojans.

Mustain, on the other hand, was in a completely different system for five years in Arkansas all throughout high school and his freshman year with the Razorbacks. It takes a long time to change from a style you have been accustomed to and adapt to a totally different style.

Some might say, yes, but look at Mustain’s teammate, Damian Williams.

I say apples and oranges.

Routes don’t change for wide receivers. A post is a post, a corner is a corner, a fade is a fade, a cross is a cross regardless of what system you are playing. While it is true that a wide receiver needs to learns new signals and play calls, he does not have call those signals or audible or read progressions or check-down.

I believe the fact that Mustain has never decided to transfer, no matter how far down the depth chart he has fallen at USC and no matter how terrible his performance on the practice field, attests to the quiet confidence he has in his skills.

More importantly, it is a sign of his belief in Pete Carroll’s offensive designs and his ability to someday master that offense. Perhaps that someday is finally here.


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