This time, Pete Carroll chose not to wait.
A week after failing to announce a starting quarterback, and then watching Aaron Corp struggle in a loss at Washington, Carroll said Wednesday that freshman Matt Barkley would return to the lineup Saturday night against Washington State.
“He’s going to give us the best chance to win right now,” Carroll said after practice.
Barkley was sidelined last week because of a bone bruise in his right shoulder, an injury suffered against Ohio State on Sept. 12. He warmed up but was unable to get loose Saturday during the fourth quarter of the Trojans’ 16-13 loss at Seattle, a defeat that might have crippled their chances of making a run for the Bowl Championship Series title.
Barkley has practiced this week, but he said Tuesday that he continued to feel pain and was unable to throw with full velocity. Regardless of his condition, he maintained that he planned to start against Washington State.
Quarterbacks were not made available to reporters Wednesday.
“He’s our starter, and he’s ready to play, and hopefully with the next couple of days and more rest he’ll feel good,” Carroll said before evening meetings with his staff. “He’s OK now. He’s not quite back yet, but he’s able to function and play.”
The announcement of Barkley’s starting was in stark contrast to last week, when neither Carroll nor quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates explicitly told Corp that he would start against Washington in the Trojans’ Pacific 10 Conference opener.
Corp passed for only 110 yards and had a pass intercepted, one of three turnovers that cost USC in a defeat that dropped the Trojans from third to 12th in the Associated Press media poll and from third to 10th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll.
The timing of Wednesday’s decision, Carroll said, “has nothing to do with last week.”
“I think it’s best for us to get focused in on what we’re doing because Matt’s going to make it,” he said. “So there’s no reason to wait.”
Said center Kristofer O’Dowd: “He’s been performing well, his rehab’s going been going really well and his confidence is still the same in the huddle.”
But with Barkley nursing a sore shoulder and Corp six weeks removed from a cracked fibula, many fans have been waiting for Carroll to give junior Mitch Mustain an opportunity. Carroll said he understood the clamor for Mustain, who started eight games for Arkansas as a freshman in 2006, but he indicated that there was no debate about the depth chart.
“The backup guys always look really good until they get their chance and then you find out where they fit,” Carroll said. “We’re working really hard at this decision and we think we’re really clear about Matt being the No. 1 guy, Aaron being the No. 2 guy and Mitch being the No. 3 guy.”
Barkley started the first two games, looking sharp in the Trojans’ 56-3 season-opening rout of San Jose State and then struggling for much of the game against Ohio State.
Barkley was injured in the third quarter against the Buckeyes but stayed in the game, leading the game-winning drive in an 18-15 victory at Columbus.
Barkley returns to an offense that has been dominated by the run and has produced only three touchdowns in the last two games, none through the air.
The Trojans did not convert any of their 10 third-down opportunities against Washington and have converted only 23% for the season.
“I’ve got to do a better job of taking a more aggressive approach,” said Bates, who has received intense criticism from fans on Internet message boards.
As he did last weekend, Carroll again defended Bates.
“We’ve been playing the way we’ve played because we feel we have to,” Carroll said. “Through the development of our quarterbacks, we’ve got to make sure they’re coming along and they can play the game in a manner that doesn’t put us in really bad situations.
“We want to keep striving to return to balance. . . . Maybe it will be this week, or next week. We need to get back to that to be at our very best. We have not been there yet.”
Taylor Mays (knee) participated in a few drills, but Carroll said, “It’s going to be a struggle for him to make it for the game.” Sophomore Drew McAllister would start again in Mays’ spot. . . . Jake Harfman is making a push to replace Bill O’Malley as the punter. Also, Mustain kicked during a competitive team drill for the first time. “If you watch him,” Carroll said of Mustain, “he’s hitting about .300 right now, which would be good in baseball but not quite for punting. He has plenty of potential.”