EL PASO, Texas – A football season that began with so much promise for Southern California will end today in a place few would have expected to see the Trojans this bowl season.
USC started the season No. 1 in the country with a quarterback favored to win the Heisman Trophy. Losses to Stanford and Oregon took the Trojans out of the national title picture, and losses to Arizona, rival UCLA and then finally to Notre Dame sent them tumbling to second-tier bowl status.
Instead of the BCS, the Trojans (7-5) will face Georgia Tech (6-7) in the Sun Bowl. Both teams are unranked and riding two-game losing streaks, and USC will be without injured quarterback Matt Barkley (shoulder).
The Trojans admit they had much greater expectations for themselves, but they also are happy to be in a bowl game after a two-year ban and will try to salvage a season that slipped through their fingers after a 6-1 start.
“We wanted to be in a better bowl game, and that’s typical, but we decided our own fate and this is where we’re at,” All-American receiver Marqise Lee said. “So now we’re here, just ready to play and focused – enjoying practice and enjoying our days here, and we’ll be ready to play on Monday.”
Barkley, the first three-time captain in team history, injured his right shoulder in the loss to UCLA. It was announced Thursday that Barkley was not cleared to play in the Sun Bowl.
It certainly is not the season Barkley envisioned when he decided to return for his senior season and put off the NFL.
“I wouldn’t say tough. It’s not like you really have an example to look to as how to handle it with all the success teams in the past have had at this school,” Barkley said. “It’s been definitely a learning lesson, not something I could have imagined, but then again nothing is guaranteed.”
Barkley’s injury means redshirt freshman Max Wittek will get his second start. The first was the 22-13 loss to Notre Dame in which he was 14-of-23 passing for 186 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
“We’re fortunate it isn’t the first time we’ve had to (play without Barkley),” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We did it a lot of games last season. The team is very comfortable with Max. It’s not like all of a sudden we made him the starter.”
Lee gave Wittek a ringing endorsement.
“Based off that Notre Dame game, we had little situations here and there, but then again you know what your quarterback is capable of. Max threw two picks, but then again in the huddle he was still pumping us up,” Lee said. “From a young quarterback, you don’t expect that. So to see that from a freshman, willing to push us, the vets, and get us there and ready to go is amazing. So I’m not worried about him at all.”
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said he doesn’t expect USC to change much offensively with Wittek.
“Surely he’s an excellent player,” Johnson said of Barkley, “but I think the young man that played in his place is also very talented. We only had the one game to break it down, but you can see he’s got good feet, a very strong arm and he’s very capable. I doubt they’re going to change what they do.”
And neither will Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets, with their triple-option offense, are fourth in the nation in rushing, averaging 323 yards per game. Quarterback Tevin Washington has run for 19 touchdowns.
“It’s very difficult (to prepare for),” Kiffin said of Tech’s offense. “Luckily, we had a month to prepare for it. I don’t know how people do it in a week.”
The Yellow Jackets have to prepare for a USC offense that features two of the best receivers in the nation in Lee and junior Robert Woods. Woods is USC’s all-time receptions leader, while Lee won the Biletnikoff Award and finished fourth in this year’s Heisman voting.
“The two wide receivers are so talented,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a good offensive line, an adequate running game. They’re just very talented all up and down at every position.”