Competition within the game: Clausen vs. Barkley

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

The hype machine hummed with no small amount of justification this week about Jimmy Clausen and Matt Barkley. The thousands of words that have poured forth about these two quarterbacks, connected and divided by so many opinions and sentiments and measures and public and private moments apprehended and misapprehended, diligently aspired to describe the compelling contrasts and similarities that braid them together in a cardinal and green rope of rivalry and friendship.

It was an analytical circus that almost eclipsed the football game USC and Notre Dame will play Saturday.

Start with this.

When Clausen picked Notre Dame over USC in 2006, he was "the most acclaimed California prep quarterback since John Elway."

When Barkley, a lifelong USC fan, committed to the Trojans his junior year in 2008, he was "a cross between Joe Montana and [Tom] Brady."

Both southern California products were rated the No. 1 prep quarterback in the nation when they were high school seniors, Clausen at Oaks Christian and Barkley at Mater Dei. Both were longtime students of respected quarterbacks guru Steve Clarkson.

Two years separated them. As personalities, they were very different. But their innate awareness of comparable talent drew them together.

"Every time I go back home during the offseason, Matt is always around," Clausen said. "We're always throwing the ball, hanging out, stuff like that."

But very different.

Clausen committed to Notre Dame from inside the College Football Hall of Fame in front of about 300 people and a TV crew from ESPN. He arrived via a stretch Hummer limousine. He talked about winning multiple national titles. He wore a suit that looked expensive but didn't fit him well. His hair was spiked and gelled.

Barkley released a statement and talked to a handful of reporters when he quietly committed to USC. There was no pomp. There was no circumstance. There was no big, white Hummer. It remains unclear if Barkley actually combs his hair, which already hints at early recession.

A Barkley quote from shortly after he committed as it appeared in the New York Times: “Jesus Christ is No. 1 to me,” said Barkley, who has a 3.9 grade point average. “That’s who I play for."

Do a search on Google images of "Jimmy Clausen" and then "Matt Barkley." Who gets the unflattering, mocking photos? And who doesn't?

So, clearly we have a good guy -- a West Coast Tebow -- and a self-absorbed brat, right?

Great news. It's more complicated that that, more nuanced. To spoil the potential cliffhanger: The folks who actually know Clausen seem to like him. And, you know, maybe he got some bad advice on how to handle his commitment and that one moment shouldn't entirely define him as a person.

"I've grown a lot," Clausen said. "When I first walked into Notre Dame, I didn't really know and expect what it was to be the quarterback at Notre Dame. I've had to deal with some things on the field, off the field."

Clausen mostly stops there and redirects from any deeper introspective insights. He's become pretty jaded -- not without justification -- with this whole "talk about himself to reporters thing," though he seems pleased to learn that USC linebacker Chris Galippo spoke highly of him.

Is Clausen cocky? The question didn't irritate Galippo so much as arouse a linebackery defense.

"No, not at all," Galippo said. "If anything, he's an extreme competitor, which we all are. Regardless of the vibe he gives people, the guy is an awesome football player. He's a guy who goes out and works his tail off. He's easily the best quarterback in the nation right now.

That may be true. Clausen leads the nation in passing efficiency. He's completed 68 percent of his throws with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Moreover, he's played through pain -- he's been nursing a turf toe for weeks -- and has led the Irish to three dramatic comeback wins.

Perhaps he should be a leading Heisman Trophy candidate? All he has to do to legitimize his candidacy is end the Fighting Irish's seven-game losing streak against the Trojans.

"I think that he's had a heck of a year," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "I mean, you look at what he's done through these first five games. There couldn't be anyone in the country playing any better than him. But now he is going against the best defense that he's seen all year long. So I think these are the type of moments where you really get judged on how well you do when you go against the really, really good guys."

Speaking of really good guys: Matt Barkley!

Playing his first career away game in front of 100,000-plus at Ohio State, Barkley became a sensation when he led a 14-play, 86-yard, fourth-quarter drive to beat the Buckeyes.

He's seems completely unflappable. His arm is special. He smiles a lot. His teammates rave about him. Coach Pete Carroll calls him an "outlier," meaning he's human but just barely.

His numbers -- three touchdowns and two interceptions -- won't blow anyone away, but that doesn't stop Carroll from gushing.

"He really has everything you're looking for," he said.

There are many potential topics to ask Barkley about -- his maturation, Notre Dame's struggling defense, his decision to turn down an invitation to join the X-Men, etc. -- but one sticks out.

So is Clausen cocky?

"I think people might get the wrong image but I actually admire that about him," Barkley said. "He's confident in how he can play and his abilities and I think it's really coming out and showing this year. It might have come out wrong in a couple of instances, what people might take from what he's said or what he's done. And that's not who I am. I'm going to take a different route. That's how he is. That's how he plays. It's working out well for him this year."

Just a hint of compare-and-contrast there, eh?

There is an itty-bitty bit of entertaining tension present, bubbling just beneath the surface. After all, it's USC-Notre Dame.

For example, when asked about Barkley, Weis praised his supporting cast: "I think the one thing he does very well is he knows who his playmakers are and he gets the ball in their hands."

Asked about how Barkley is different from Clausen as a freshman, Weis said, "I think that Jimmy wasn't around as good a supporting cast. That might be the biggest understatement I might ever say."

Meanwhile, Carroll basically said that Clausen didn't come to USC because he was afraid of competing with Mark Sanchez.

"I felt like he was concerned about who else was around and was coming and all that," Carroll said. "He was trying to take a look at situating himself in the best position where he could play early ... He had a lot of respect for Mark and thought that in all likelihood Mark might have a chance to be ahead of him, which he would have been."

Countered Clausen, "No, that wasn't a factor at all."

Hmm. Clausen became Notre Dame's starter by the second game of his true freshman year. If he'd gone to USC, it's likely he would have competed with Barkley for the starting job this past spring and preseason after waiting for Sanchez to become a top-five NFL draft pick following his junior year.

Clausen vs. Barkley would have been interesting.

But their competition will have to be settled on the field Saturday in the high grass before Touchdown Jesus. These two hyped, golden-boy, southern California quarterback recruits -- and friends! -- will have at least one opportunity to win dominance over the other head-to-head.

Barkley isn't supposed to be the brash one, but he found it difficult to duck the notion that bragging rights are at stake.

"Possibly. Maybe after the game," he said. "I don't like to think about that stuff heading into a game. But there might be. I guess there will be a little individual battle between us two as well."