USC's Wittek gets Sun Bowl start; Barkley's college career over

Matt Barkley leaves USC with school records for passing yards and touchdowns, but no championships. (US Presswire)

When he passed up the NFL Draft last year, Matt Barkley was looking forward to ending his college career with a bang, playing for the BCS championship in Miami, or perhaps in his first Rose Bowl. Instead, the end will come with a whimper, with one of the most prolific passers in USC history watching from the sidelines in El Paso, Texas.

As expected, coach Lane Kiffin confirmed Thursday that Barkley will not play in next week's Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech, the result of a lingering shoulder injury that also kept him out of the Trojans' regular season finale against Notre Dame. With that, Barkley officially bows out with USC records for passing yards and touchdowns, as well as a 34-13 record as a starter. But after becoming the first true freshman quarterback in school history to start a season opener in 2009, he also leaves as the first Trojan QB in more than a decade without a conference championship or a BCS bowl on his resumé.

In his place, the Trojans will turn to redshirt freshman Max Wittek, who earned his first career start against the Fighting Irish. With Barkley on ice, USC opened bowl practices earlier this month by alternating Wittek and fellow redshirt freshman Cody Kessler with the first-string offense, a preview of the competition for the starting job in spring practice. Kiffin went so far as to acknowledge that the bowl practices will be viewed as part of that duel: "We've been splitting reps with these two, much like we will in the spring," he told the Orange County Register, "and really going back and forth with them, giving them both shots. ... This is just part of the eventual competition for who will be the starter next year."

Kessler and Wittek both arrived in 2011 as touted, four-star prospects in the mold of a long line of big, statuesque slingers at USC, the latter even coming from the same high school that produced Barkley and former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart. During the regular season, Wittek appeared briefly in six games before replacing Barkley in the finale. Opposite the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation, he was 14-for-23 passing for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

The soon-to-be sophomores won't have the huddle to themselves for long: Emerging from the pipeline in the spring will be Max Browne, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound freshman from Sammamish, Wash., rated by nearly every recruiting site as the most coveted quarterback in the 2013 class. Browne was one of five early enrollees to sign scholarship papers with USC earlier this month and is expected to compete for the starting job right away.

For Barkley, the focus now turns to rehabilitating his shoulder and his standing among NFL scouts, which plummeted this season despite virtually identical numbers from 2011 to 2012 in terms of yards, touchdowns and overall efficiency. Barkley's numbers did suffer this year from a decline in completion percentage and (much more damaging) a disconcerting jump in interceptions, which more than doubled from seven in 2011 to 15 in fewer attempts. He was picked off at least twice in each of his last four starts, three of them USC losses.

At the same time, in a year dominated by freshman and sophomore signal-callers, no other draft-eligible quarterback has definitively supplanted Barkley at the top of the board. If the draft was held tomorrow, the first name called would likely be West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, who surged to the top of Heisman lists and mock drafts alike with an eye-opening September, and managed to salvage his stock from an October swoon with a strong finish over the final month. But Barkley is still widely projected as a first-rounder, and still has three months' worth of interviews, combines, pro days and private workouts to remind scouts he's still an elite prospect. As of today, though, he does not have another college game.

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