LOS ANGELES – Matt Barkley is Penn State's sliver of hope. From the unhappiest of valleys, the Nittany Lions can look, of all places, to USC and its blond, sundrenched senior quarterback for inspiration in their time of despair.
Not that the Trojans have a special affinity for Penn State. In fact, they are reportedly recruiting Nittany Lion junior Silas Redd, who rushed for 1,241 yards last season. Any Penn State player can transfer under the NCAA sanctions levied for the school's failings in the Jerry Sandusky sexual molestation case. And USC could use a running back.
All's fair, apparently, when it comes to luring players from punished programs. USC knows that all too well, and Penn State is about to learn.
But back, for the moment, to Barkley, a Heisman Trophy candidate and potential first overall pick in next year's NFL draft. He returned for his senior year in large part because sanctions against USC after his freshman season – including a bowl ban and a reduction of scholarships – eliminated any chance of a national championship for two years.
Everything Barkley dreamed of accomplishing when he enrolled at USC in 2009 was dashed because of transgressions committed before he arrived. His only chance to realize those goals was to shock the world and turn down millions of NFL dollars to go back to school.
Barkley admits he'd be heading to his first NFL training camp rather than preparing for the Pac-12 season had the Trojans gone to prestigious bowls the last two years and competed for a national title. If not for the sanctions – triggered by a Yahoo! Sports report by Charles Robinson that running back Reggie Bush had received improper benefits in 2005 – Barkley no longer would be a Trojan.
"Unfinished business," he said. "That's the big reason I came back. Not just for me, but for all my teammates who went through this together."
Penn State players today feel an unfathomable low. Their program enjoyed a tradition as strong as USC and other perennial top-20 teams. Success was sustained for decades. Now it seems all that will disappear for many years, if not forever. The NCAA banned the Nittany Lions from bowl games for four years and took away 10 scholarships a year for the same amount of time, prompting dire predictions that it will take the program eight to 10 years to return to form.
Similar sentiments were expressed about USC in 2009. Its coach, Pete Carroll, had jumped to the NFL. The sanctions were considered landmark in their severity and their impact was predicted to be profound.
Not so. Two seasons have gone by and USC is bowl eligible. Scholarship restrictions will remain in place for another year, but that hasn't kept the Trojans from putting together a top-ranked recruiting class this year. And it hasn't kept USC from joining Alabama as most likely to be ranked No. 1.
"People were saying that for the next five to10 years USC is over, done," said Lane Kiffin, the coach who replaced Carroll. "To be in the conversation [for No. 1] so soon is extremely exciting for USC and to our fans."
Penn State's sanctions exceed those weathered by USC. A four-year bowl ban means no player currently on the team will ever play in the postseason. At USC, a freshman star such as Barkley knew that if he stuck it out, there could be a payoff as a senior. A key for Penn State will be to convince recruits the next few years that they can quietly build something that could pay off handsomely when the sanctions expire.
Like at USC.
"Right now we are bowl eligible and anyone in that position would be happy," Barkley said. "Thinking of that possibility, the fact that we had the opportunity to do that, kept us positive. We can play for that national championship, we can play for that bowl game."
When sanctions were levied, USC juniors and seniors were granted permission to transfer without having to sit out a year, and any Penn State player may do the same now. Six USC players transferred, none of them starters.
Competing programs already are descending on Penn State like vultures. USC isn't the only school interested in Redd, the plum of the roster. Certainly, the prospect of bringing in a Penn State player or two that for one year won't count against USC's already lower scholarship limit is enormously appealing.
Kiffin wouldn't comment on chasing Redd, but he was happy to reminisce about how he and his staff kept Trojan players from leaving two years ago.
"We had to recruit our own players to stay," he said. "You have coaches around the country flying your guys in during summer school. A lot of times it's not premier players, it's backups who teams are telling, 'You come here and you can start.' "
Barkley, who as a sophomore would have had to sit out a year had he transferred, helped convince teammates to stay.
"There was nothing to do except to stand up and face the giants, in a sense," he said. "With my love for USC, I wasn't going to give it up just because there were two [bowl] games I couldn't play in.
"I really do think the sanctions brought our team closer together and strengthened us in a way I couldn't have anticipated. We faced adversity in a way guys our age normally don't, and that was unique. It seemed bad at first but it worked out in a way we couldn't have conceived."
It took a leap of faith to presume the Trojans would remain competitive – they went 8-5 in 2010 and 10-2 last season – and so quickly be considered among the nation's elite.
"We didn’t know we'd be here today," Barkley said. "That's for sure."
Shortly after last season, Barkley planned to leave USC for the NFL. For weeks he vacillated. He wouldn't have been picked ahead of Andrew Luck and probably wouldn't have gone ahead of Robert Griffin III – quarterbacks who went first and second in the draft – but he'd have gone soon thereafter and become instantly rich.
"Matt was completely ready for the NFL," Kiffin said. "He was a top-five pick, ready to become the face of a franchise. This was about him wanting to do something special, to go down as the most historic Trojan ever."
Penn State needs a Matt Barkley. Maybe if Silas Redd stays, his younger teammates will too. Maybe recruiting will get easier with each passing year as incoming freshmen realize they could compete for a Big Ten title and play in a bowl game down the road. Maybe the feeling they could do something special for the school they love becomes paramount.
Or maybe it will take longer. Maybe Redd weighs his options and makes the totally understandable decision to leave. Maybe the possibility of resurrecting a once-proud program, of erasing the stigma of Sandusky and the failures of Paterno, is a few years away.
Maybe Penn State's Matt Barkley is in high school right now, honing his game and developing leadership skills. The opportunity eventually will come. Smiles could return to Happy Valley.
"I just know I couldn't feel any better than I do right now," Barkley said. "I know I made the right decision. I can finish something special, and do it with the guys I care about."
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