Barkley vs. the Horseshoe: Who wins?

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

The true freshman stepped into the huddle. He told his teammates not to worry. He would lead them to victory in a hostile environment.

And Tennessee lineman Jason Layman turned to Peyton Manning and told him to "Shut up and call the play."

It's not easy being a true freshman quarterback for many reasons, including veteran teammates who couldn't care less about a scintillating prep pedigree.

USC guard Jeff Byers is a 24-year-old, sixth-year senior. He's the leader of a veteran offensive line that might be the nation's best unit. He's seen just about everything while blocking for three different quarterbacks who are now in the NFL.

Nonetheless, if true freshman Matt Barkley gave him an earful about a blown assignment, he said he'd take it without complaint.

"Oh yeah, because the kid is good," Byers said. "But I don't think he'd be one of the guys who would say that. He'd be one who'd slap you on the butt and say, 'Let's go get 'em. We all make mistakes.'"

And what about Barkley making his first road start inside the unfriendly confines of Ohio Stadium, aka the Horseshoe?

"I think he'll thrive in those kinds of places because he's such a great competitor," Byers said.

There are two powerful, competing forces at work amid the pregame hype for No. 3 USC's visit to No. 8 Ohio State.

One camp in L.A. provides a collective shoulder shrug when asked about the combination of Barkley and infamous atmosphere of the Horseshoe, where the Buckeyes are 24-1 in nonconference games under coach Jim Tressel, the lone defeat coming in 2005 to eventual national champion Texas.

Barkley has repeatedly said he's not worried, and even added a "bring it on" after practice Tuesday, which might help turn the volume of the 102,000 on hand up another notch from 11 to 12.

The other force counters that Barkley is still a true freshman -- he turned 19 this week -- and that he's never played in an environment like the Horseshoe and that no matter how poised he may be, that environment will at least distract him even if he's not intimidated.

And distracted quarterbacks tend to make mistakes, particularly young ones.

USC coach Pete Carroll has fielded the question 100 different ways since the Trojans stomped San Jose State 56-3 in the opener, and the media haven't worn down his faith that Barkley will not only be fine but will excel because of the environment.

"I would think he's going to have fun with it and he's going to be excited to see what it looks like to be in an opponent's stadium of that stature and all," Carroll said. "And then he's going to go play. I don't think it will matter to him at all. That's just the way he's been and how he's handled things and he has such confidence and such comfort in his own skin. That will be extended into the setting as well."

New USC starting quarterbacks have good track records in big, early-season nonconference road games under Carroll. Matt Leinart was a sophomore when the Trojans whipped No. 6 Auburn 23-0. Junior John David Booty was brilliant -- completing 24 of 35 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions -- when the Trojans bludgeoned Arkansas 50-14.

But neither was a true freshman.

Of course, the USC offense isn't only about Barkley. Far from it. Nine starters are back from 2008, and there's depth at every position.

"If you threw a freshman quarterback in there and everyone else was a rookie, it would be frightening," Tressel said. "But the beauty that Pete Carroll has there with Matt Barkley being in the game is that the offensive line is perfectly choreographed and all those folks he's got around him -- handing it to and throwing it to and protecting him and so forth -- that is as good of a situation as you can have."

Moreover, USC contends that Barkley is a true freshman in title only.

Receiver Damian Williams is tight with Aaron Corp, who lost the starting job to Barkley. But Williams said he knew Barkley was special early in spring practices, which Barkley participated in after graduating early from Mater Dei High School in Newport Beach, Calif.

"He was making throws that I didn't think high school quarterbacks were capable of making," Williams said.

Barkley also immediately asserted himself in the huddle against San Jose State, even when the offense sputtered in the first quarter.

"He came to the huddle calm and collected ... he gave us a couple of pep talks in the huddle," running back Joe McKnight said.

Byers was particularly impressed by how quickly Barkley put bad plays behind him, including the lone sack the Trojans surrendered.

"I thought that was a defining moment," Byers said. "I loved how he was in the huddle. More important than how he played -- his numbers -- was just how he handled himself and controlled the offense and led us."

Ah, but that competing force just smirks. To it, all this feels like a pep talk for a young man who is about to enter the belly of the beast.

A Horseshoe? On the Buckeyes side of things, Ohio Stadium is grinning as it anticipates the arrival of Matt Barkley.