It was one thing to get beaten out by Mark Sanchez, a man bound for NFL stardom, or even Matt Barkley, a player who appears to be on a similar track. But Aaron Corp?
If it seems like it’s been a while since Mitch Mustain was relevant at USC, that’s because it has been. He was supposed to pressure Sanchez three springs ago, but the race didn’t end up being all that close. Two springs ago, both Corp and Barkley motored past him on the depth chart.
It’s not what most people predicted from a Gatorade Player of the Year who, going back to his junior-high days, is 61-2 as a starting quarterback. After winning his first eight games as a starter at Arkansas, Mustain transferred and was USC’s “Service Team Offensive Player of the Year,” the following season. It hasn’t gotten much better for him since then.
But he stuck around, despite a fresh opportunity to transfer without penalty when the NCAA hit USC with sanctions last summer. At last, his opportunity has arrived. Unless Barkley’s high ankle sprain heals quickly, Mustain figures to start Saturday against Notre Dame. He might be the guy the following week against UCLA, too.
Four years into his Trojans career, he’s about to make his first start.
In a season suddenly bereft of meaning, Mustain could have a chance to play USC’s two most meaningful games, against its archrivals. The Trojans are hoping Mustain handles the assignment better than he did Saturday at Oregon State, when he had to scramble to replace Barkley late in the first half and completed 47 percent of his passes.
“I’m happy to have this opportunity, but at the same time I’m not going to sit back and let it slide by,” Mustain said. “We’re going to go get it and play the game how we play.”
Mustain took 90 percent of the snaps with the first-team offense on Tuesday and Wednesday, with walk-on John Manoogian getting the others. Tuesday, Barkley stood on the sideline in a gray hoodie, his hands grasping crutch handles, his left ankle in a walking boot. By Wednesday, the boot was off, but his left ankle was still heavily taped.
The only thing stopping Lane Kiffin from announcing Mustain as his starting quarterback appears to be gamesmanship. Why let the Notre Dame coaches know with this much notice? Mustain claims the uncertainty won’t be a problem, that if Barkley suddenly hops off the bench before the first offensive series, he’ll be OK with it.
The challenge might be containing his emotions and nerves after waiting so long. You can’t redeem yourself after four years of standing on the sideline with one snap, one series or even one game.
“I tried that last week, so, hopefully I got that out,” Mustain said. “I feel fine with it. it’s one rep at time.”
Kiffin compared Mustain’s bumpy USC career to the state of the program, beset by NCAA sanctions, its grasp on conference dominance long since gone.
“I think it’d be a pretty neat story if he ends up playing and playing really well,” Kiffin said.