USC’s Matt Barkley could quack the Heisman leader board Saturday

Matt Barkley was 12 years old on that blustery fall day in Eugene, Ore., when Carson Palmer effectively won the Heisman Trophy. Here’s hoping somebody showed Barkley the film this week.

It was 2002 and the college football world wasn’t quite sure about USC. Or about Palmer.

The Trojans entered the game ranked 15th, Oregon 14th. The game was played in Autzen Stadium, where then, as now, great visiting players go to become ordinary.

Just before that season, the stadium’s capacity had been increased from 41,698 to 54,000. From that point forward, the verbal love from the Duck callers in the stands has never stopped. For visiting teams, Autzen is mostly a horror show. Opponents arrive expecting the loss of several million brain cells.


It was into this warm-and-fuzzy world that Palmer ventured. If there was no fear in his heart, then he didn’t have one.

But before it ended, the tall, blond kid from Orange County, who looked as though he should be as good in big surf as under center, had done the unthinkable. He had passed for 448 yards and five touchdowns and his team had emerged from the Duck blind and into sunshine with a 44-33 victory.

Before that, Palmer had been in the Heisman mix. Sort of. After that, he was the man to beat.

Columnists who witnessed the Excellence in Eugene, led by The Times’ Bill Plaschke, beat the drum enough to make sure the voters from the East didn’t overlook the Trojan from the West. Soon, Palmer had led USC to an 11-2 season, a win in the Orange Bowl, and the limelight at the New York Athletic Club. He had become Carson Palmer, Heisman Trophy winner.

We flash forward.

Barkley, another Orange County kid who looks as if he has spent some time in the big breakers, has found a Carson Palmer moment. Same place, same throaty fans. Lots of eyes upon him.

USC is ranked No. 18, Oregon No. 4. It is a network TV game with a 5 p.m. start, which allows plenty of time for fans at Autzen to properly lubricate their throats.

Barkley’s statistics are Heisman-worthy — he has completed 247 of 370 passes for 2,782 yards and 29 touchdowns. His maturity has grown similarly. But like Palmer was before his pelleting of the Ducks that day, he is the third or fourth sentence in the Heisman conversation.

Mostly, that’s because he is not only facing USC’s usual tough opponents — including, the last two years, the NCAA — but he is competing in a Heisman race with a near-deity.

That would be Andrew Luck, quarterback at Stanford, who until last week was such a sure thing to win the Heisman that there was talk of just having a conference call instead of a vote. Luck’s statistics actually trail Barkley’s slightly. Luck has completed 221 of 313 passes for 2,680 yards and 29 touchdowns. He has seven interceptions, one more than Barkley.

But Luck has the hype machine solidly on his side, and probably has earned that.

His coach, David Shaw: “The guy runs the game like nobody else in college football.”

John Elway, who had a little success himself as a Stanford quarterback, and later as a Super Bowl-winning NFL superstar: “He has the complete package.”

Lane Kiffin, USC’s coach: “He’s pretty much perfect.”

Rick Neuheisel, UCLA’s coach: “He’s a remarkable player.”

And Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the better sports wordsmiths in the Bay Area: “If there is a Heisman Trophy discussion that does not begin with Luck, then it is the province of fools.”

Much of that canonization, however, was before Luck and Stanford got handled nicely last weekend by Oregon, 53-30. And that was at the Farm, not the Autzen Zoo.

So the door has cracked open for Barkley. If he is impressive against a very impressive Oregon team, they might actually have to hold a vote for the Heisman. Plaschke’s typing fingers, nine years older, are still nimble.

A key will be whether ace receiver Robert Woods plays. Kiffin talked this week about Woods’ various injuries as if he expected him to be in a wheelchair Saturday. That usually means the player will play. The target Woods presents for Barkley could make or break the junior quarterback’s day.

Barkley has several people in his camp.

Steve Sarkisian, Washington’s coach, who still appears to bleed some cardinal and gold after years as a USC assistant, said, “If I’m an NFL head coach, I’d pick Matt Barkley ahead of Andrew Luck.”

And no less than Gil Brandt, at 78 still as keen an observer of football talent as there is, sees Saturday in Oregon as a special chance for Barkley.

“The [Heisman] voters are going to take notice of that game,” said Brandt, for 28 years the director of player development for the Dallas Cowboys and now an analyst on “You are going to see a comparison with Luck. It’s big that that the game is at Oregon. There is no question about the obstacles. But I think he has been well coached — both by Lane and Pete Carroll — and I see him as a top five or six draft pick.”

And so, for Barkley, whose Saturday in Oregon may be a deciding factor in whether he joins Luck in coming out this year for the draft, opportunity knocks.

A nation will watch to see if Barkley can turn up the heat against a great team in a great stadium where they are certain to turn up the volume. Carson Palmer might even tune in.