Matt Barkley keeps his fighting spirit despite Stanford debacle

Three days after a chunk of his dream season crashed and splattered across his golden aura, Matt Barkley has agreed to meet with me, with one request.

Instead of chatting in the lobby of Heritage Hall, he would like to move our interview to a quiet meeting room to avoid distraction from the USC band practicing outside.

It’s not that the fight song is too loud. It’s that the fight song is too inspiring.

“Every time it gets me going,” he says. “I don’t know how, but that song still really gets me fired up.”

Even now, the kid is still all in. Even after being slammed into reality, the kid is still waving that sword. Even after suffering the greatest personal misfortune of any Trojan on Saturday night at Stanford, Barkley still acts like the luckiest man on campus.

You can take away his Heisman lead, you can drop a tree across his team’s national title road, you can openly wonder if he regrets giving up NFL riches for a season thus far filled with cheap drama and disillusionment, and you know what you’ll get?

“I could not be more excited, to tell you the truth,” he says.

You know what else you get?

“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” he says.

You would think he would want to be anywhere else, failing to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in nearly two years in the Trojans’ 21-14 loss to the Cardinal. His team fell from second to 13th in the national rankings. His place in ESPN’s Heisman Trophy poll fell from first to fifth. His coach publicly scolded him, one of his teammates publicly wondered if the team was prepared, and critics everywhere chortled about the latest USC cover boy to fall from grace.

Yet by the time he returned to Los Angeles with the team early Sunday morning, his phone was filled with text messages of Bible verses from family and friends, words about finishing a race, about a greater plan. By the time he meets with me Tuesday, he has that same Barkley smile, that familiar Barkley grace.

“This is different than what you hope for, what you dream about,” Barkley says. “But at the same time, it poses a new challenge — how are you going to lead these guys?”

He would not be blamed if this new challenge involved paying attention to the league where he will soon work. Yet I passed him walking alone through campus Monday night while Peyton Manning was leading the Denver Broncos against the Atlanta Falcons on television.

It turns out, he was returning from his only class, a three-hour computer forensicsclass that meets during “Monday Night Football.”

“I never even thought about that when I signed up for it,” he says. “To be honest, right now, I’m not really watching the NFL.”

When he thrilled the Trojan nation last winter by saying he was staying on campus for another season, well, he meant it. He hasn’t left USC and, clearly, USC hasn’t left him.

This week he could easily have taken a shot at Coach Lane Kiffin, who categorized his consecutive interceptions against Stanford as, “Probably two of his worst decisions in our three years together ... really poor decisions by him ... ones he’d like to have back.”

Yet Barkley shrugs and says, “He was being real, he has to be authentic with how he both portrays individual players. I can see him avoiding it and not even talking about it, but by putting it out there, it wasn’t an attack at me ... it was a growing lesson for me and my receivers and our line.”

He won’t criticize his coach, or his coaches who seemed to be out-schemed by Stanford’s coaches, or his receivers who missed on some routes, or his outmanned offensive line, or his weary defense. As usual, the only finger Barkley is pointing this week it at himself.

“I don’t feel I put my team in the best position to win,” he says. “If I’m putting my team in the best position to win, the other stuff takes care of itself.”

Even when I play the injury card, he won’t play along. I have written that Barkley’s arm seems hurt, that he doesn’t throw downfield with the same zip, leading the Trojans to forsake a deep passing game. Barkley hears this again Tuesday, and keeps smiling.

“My shoulder is fine, my arm is fine, there is no pain, everything’s great,” he says. “I got thick skin. I’m probably bigger than some of those linebackers. I had a few bumps and bruises, but those wear away pretty quickly.”

The biggest personal hit Saturday was laid upon his Heisman campaign, which is not yet finished, but he must put up huge numbers for the rest of the fall, not that he says he cared.

“No, I do not follow it, I don’t know what’s going on, I’d prefer not to know, to tell you the truth,” he says. “There’s a lot of football left in the season for my team and myself to do some pretty good things.”

Matt Barkley still cares so much about being a Trojan, it seems the only thing that irks him is younger teammates who can’t possibly understand that passion. He will take them aside at practice to remind them. He has met with the entire team to inspire them.

“I’ve mentioned this to some guys who don’t know what it’s like to be here for one final year.... They think they can coast through and their time will come,” he says. “I’m trying not to let that happen. I’m trying to let them know there’s only one 2012.”

It is a year that has revealed little about this confusing USC football team. It is, however, a year that shown us everything about its quarterback.