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USC’s Barkley ready for big season finale vs. UCLA

Matt Barkley claims he hasn’t decided whether to return to USC next season. (Associated Press)
Matt Barkley claims he hasn’t decided whether to return to USC next season. (Associated Press)

LOS ANGELES – Even if Matt Barkley is down to his last few days as Southern California’s starting quarterback, he had no plans for reflection or celebration while the No. 10 Trojans prepared for another crosstown meeting with UCLA.

And this is certainly no time for crying.

Barkley laughed when USC coach Lane Kiffin recalled the weepy Coliseum finale of Matt Leinart, the Heisman Trophy winner who attended the same Orange County high school as Barkley.

Kiffin said the Trojans’ coaching staff will “make sure (Barkley) doesn’t pull a Leinart on us. Matt was still crying late in the first series, started 0 for 5, threw the ball over Mike (Williams’) head about 10 yards. … If there’s someone that won’t get rattled, it would be (Barkley).”

USC (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) finishes its season in the city championship game tonight against the Bruins (6-5, 5-3), who learned Friday they’ll represent the Pac-12 South in the first conference title game, thanks to division-leading USC’s ineligibility and Utah’s loss to Colorado.

Although Barkley claims he hasn’t decided whether to return for his senior year after leading the Trojans through NCAA sanctions and a two-year postseason ban, he still hopes to wrap up his junior year in style. He also realizes the importance of keeping intact his perfect record against USC’s archrivals.

“You probably won’t see me crying,” Barkley said. “We’ve had a good season, but it doesn’t mean anything until we finish strong. This is the game you always look back at, though. The rivalry game is the most important one.”

USC has won 11 of its last 12 meetings with UCLA, losing only in 2006.

While the Bruins have been inconsistent all season, winning consecutive games just once, the Trojans have improved significantly since the start of the season, winning six of their last seven games with last week’s landmark upset victory at Oregon.

The Bruins thought they would have much more on the line tonight than the Victory Bell.

UCLA spent all week figuring it would have to beat USC to earn a spot in the inaugural Pac-12 title game, but the Utes’ home loss to the lowly Buffaloes on Friday punched the Bruins’ ticket for the conference’s first title game next week at Oregon or Stanford before UCLA even took the Coliseum field.

UCLA still would prefer not to back into the title game – and the Bruins probably must win one of these two remaining games to avoid finishing 6-7, which could prevent them from going to a bowl game.

Who knows, a win over USC might even save UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel’s job.

Neuheisel returned to his alma mater four years ago with bold pronouncements about ending the football monopoly in Los Angeles, but only a win over USC would allow anybody to take him seriously. The coach sees progress toward that goal, even if it hasn’t been reflected in the city championship game.

“The gap has closed,” Neuheisel said Monday in a quote that was posted on the walls at USC’s Heritage Hall, albeit in a slightly altered form. “We’re much closer to (USC) than we were when I first got here.”

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