Taking the Next Step

Fourth quarter struggles, deep ball accuracy could keep Barkley from reaching new heights.

Could one throw have changed the season?

Actually, it was two chances that Matt Barkley had to make that one throw, in the fourth quarter against Washington. But the passes sailed beyond the outstretched arms of wide receiver David Ausberry and tight end Jordan Cameron, USC settled for two Joe Houston field goal attempts and the Huskies would win the game as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

That one throw started two unsettling trends for the 2010 Trojans, with two more frustrating last-second losses to Stanford and Notre Dame to come and Barkley's inability to produce in the fourth quarter.

As a sophomore, he completed just 45.5 percent of his fourth quarter passes for 322 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in eight games.

Barkley's passing efficiency declined every quarter, bottoming out in the final minutes of a game. Compare that to Andrew Luck of Stanford (185.53 pass efficiency, seven touchdowns to two interceptions) and Darron Thomas of Oregon (156.24 pass efficiency, three touchdowns to no interceptions), each of whom delivered in the clutch.

"It's obviously something for him (Matt) to improve on," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "That's the next level of being a good quarterback to a great quarterback, is finishing games off. We've got to make better plays around him."

For Kiffin, those fourth quarter woes are just one of the issues he must address.

He has spent the offseason talking about pushing Barkley to a new threshold, most notably, 30 or more touchdowns against 10 or less interceptions. Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez all did it. John David Booty came close in 2006 and conceivably would have done so in 2007 if not for his broken finger.

There are plenty of reasons to believe Barkley will join them.

"He's going into this third year," Kiffin said. "None of those guys were even playing yet, after Carson. So I think it's going to be a big year for him."

He has two seasons as a starter and three spring practices to build on. The coaches are playing to his strengths with more shotgun looks. Robert Woods can build on a sensational freshman campaign and there will be plenty of talent joining him in the receiving corps.

But there are also plenty of concerns: the shaky offensive line, a defense that often resembled a sieve last season and inexperience among the receivers.

And there is Barkley himself.

"We look for three things," quarterbacks coach Clay Helton said. "We look for decision-making, timing and accuracy."

Barkley has certainly struggled with all three.

His touch on the deep ball has been erratic, with nine career touchdown passes of longer than 40 yards.

And Barkley is still prone to head scratching plays, even in practice. Without dramatic improvement by the front five, his turnover totals could be worse than ever.

For his part, Barkley says he is "light years ahead" in not forcing passes.

"In the normal setting, I just feel in the zone – I don't know how to put it – just comfortable in holding back and not trying to throw it and rip every single ball. It's come along and feels a lot more natural to me now," he said.

It is Barkley's team now. To get back to the standard of the last decade, 10 or more wins, will depend on his ability to hit highs – in touchdowns – and lows – in interceptions – and making that one throw.

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