Huskies' Next Challenge: Defending Matt Barkley
Nov. 8, 2011
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Last week it was supersonic, sixth-ranked Oregon and its don't-blink offense.
The week before, Nick Foles and pass-happy Arizona. The week before that it was undefeated, smash-mouth Stanford, now ranked third in the country.
Now Saturday at 12:45 p.m. at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Washington (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12) gets exquisite passer Matt Barkley and potent, 18th-ranked USC (7-2, 4-2). It's on FX television nationally, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another live game chat from the sidelines.
"Probably still the most talented team in our conference," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said. "They are deeply talented."
Nick Holt just shrugged at it all. It's just life in the wide-open Pac-12.
"Just another, different set of problems in a new week," the Huskies' defensive coordinator said Tuesday night after practicing for two hours against the Trojans' schemes - and amid a constant beat of SC's incessant "Tribute to Troy" playing on an endless loop through sideline speakers.
"First of all, the quarterback is fantastic. He's playing really, really good football," Holt, the Trojans' defensive coordinator through the 2009 Rose Bowl, said of Barkley.
Barkley threw for a school-record six touchdowns last week in a 42-17 win at Colorado.
"And they have a bunch of good receivers," Holt went on.
Including Robert Woods, the nation's leader in receptions with 90, on pace to set the conference's record for a season. Teammate Marqise Lee has 43 catches and seven touchdowns, four fewer than Woods.
"And on top of that," Holt added, "their offensive line has really come together."
That includes left tackle Matt Kalil, a potential first-round pick in next spring's NFL draft.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Holt said.
That work begins - and likely will end - with Barkley. On the eve of his 34th career start, the junior is masterfully directing USC's pro-style offense, getting it out of bad plays and into huge ones.
"He definitely presents a lot of challenges for us," Huskies middle linebacker and defensive signal caller Cort Dennison said.
Barkley is second in the Pac-12 to Foles with 290 yards passing per game. His 28 touchdown passes have him atop the conference, ahead of Stanford's Andrew Luck (26) and the Huskies' Keith Price (25). His 67-percent rate of completions is just behind Rob Johnson's USC record of 68.6 percent in 1993.
Sarkisian helped recruit Barkley out of Santa Ana's Mater Dei High School in Southern California when he was the Trojans' offensive coordinator through 2008.
"If I'm an NFL head coach I'd pick Matt Barkley over Andrew Luck," said Sarkisian, an assistant with the Oakland Raiders in 2004. "I think he is playing at that high a level.
"I think (it's) where he fits into the National Football league and his pocket presence and what Lane (Kiffin, USC's coach) is doing with him. The variety of offense that they're playing with. His ability to make all of the throws, anticipate throws, throwing them on time, throwing them accurately -- he's fantastic to me. And I know him personally, so I have a little better insight of who he is, what we represents. I think he's fantastic."
When someone questioned whether he would really rate Barkley a better NFL quarterback prospect than Luck, the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, Sarkisian said: "I didn't stutter."
So how do the Huskies, who held Oregon 14 points and 14 points and 146 yards under their per-game averages last week, defend Barkley this week?
Holt says trickery and disguises of blitzes and fronts won't do much good.
"He's seen it all. I don't know if you can fluster Matt," Holt said. "And he knows our defense, I'm sure, pretty well. He sees the same looks every day in practice.
"I hope we don't beat ourselves. Make them grind it out. ... We've got to stay on top of the deep ball. Obviously, a pass rush always helps. But they do a good job protecting the quarterback with protection schemes."
Last year in Los Angeles, the Trojans chose to mostly stay on the ground against Washington. They ran 39 times for 298 yards and four touchdowns. Barkley threw just 20 passes, completing 14, for 186 yards and no scores.
USC lost 32-31 because of drive stalls, a missed field goal late -- and ultimately a final collapse on defense, when Jake Locker led the drive to Erik Folk's second game-winning field goal over the Trojans in as many seasons.
Holt expects a far more diverse and wide-open USC offense Saturday than the power-oriented one UW saw in 2010.
"I think they are doing a lot more offensively (this season)," Holt said. "They are running a lot of fly sweeps, screens - a lot of those `loose'-type plays. They are doing a lot more."
Turnovers have proven to be the great equalizer for the Huskies' defense. Washington got none at Stanford last month, but getting four of them helped the Dawgs beat Foles and Arizona two weeks ago.
UW forced only one turnover - while turning it over three times - in the 34-17 loss to Oregon last week. Yet Holt was generally pleased with how his defense played against the high-powered Ducks.
"Besides those two plays and some missed tackles, it was solid. Look at the numbers compared to everybody else, quite honestly," Holt said.
But when asked if a similar effort on Saturday would be enough to slow down Barkley and USC, Holt shook his shaved head.
"No," he said. "We've got to tackle better. We've got to eliminate some of the big plays. (Oregon) didn't have that many huge plays, but this week we can't let these guys bust a 60-, 70-yarder or something like that. We've got to make them work for everything, and hopefully get some turnovers."
QUICK HITS: The last time Washington beat USC three consecutive times spans the Huskies' co-national championship season: 1990-92. ... Saturday's forecast in Los Angeles for game time is Seattle-like: a 60-percent chance of showers and thunderstorms with a high of 63. And there is a 60-percent of steady rain the day before, making a sloppy grass field at the Coliseum possible.