For UCLA players, driving Matt Barkley into the ground late in the game was the icing on top of the cake. The Bruins had struggled to get to the stud quarterback all game long, and though they’d made him uncomfortable, they never totally got to him.
The game was well in hand, with just under two minutes to go and UCLA holding a 38-28 lead. But they had to get Barkley, just once. After four years of being demolished by the All-American quarterback, they couldn’t let the Trojan go four years without having just one defining moment over him.
Cue UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr’s vicious sack, which drove Barkley head first into the turf.
Of course, you don’t applaud the injury. Any good fan would hope that Barkley would end up just fine (spoiler: he wouldn’t), and that the kid would play against Notre Dame and finish out his career as a Trojan with a victory over another one of their heated rivals.
The hit, though? That’s a different story. It was legal. It was brutal. And it symbolized a new turn in this rivalry, and in the Los Angeles football dynamic, as we know it.
The destruction of Barkley signified the end of the Trojans’ reign as the most dominant football team in Los Angeles and as the regional hegemon of the Western United States. For the past three years, USC would come back from what seemed to be hell, fighting off sanctions and becoming national title contenders the minute they became bowl-eligible. Matt Barkley was improving every year, and it seemed he’d unleash all hell on college football, forcing UCLA fans to wait just one more year, to beat this USC team without Matt Barkley.
That hit signified the fall of the hearts and spirit of Troy.
Barkley, for the past four years, gave these Trojans something to cheer for despite the sanctions and adversity. And although he struggled mightily all season, this game against UCLA was the Trojans’ last shot at being official Pac-12 South champs and earning one more shot at those damn Oregon Ducks, who have looked as vulnerable as ever. A Rose Bowl was entirely likely. All Southern Cal had to do was beat UCLA behind the golden arm of their beloved quarterback.
And then Anthony Barr drove Barkley — and the undying optimism of Troy — into the ground.
This was it, for these Trojans. After the constant optimism, the relentless “Fight Ons” and the endless talk of getting to a BCS bowl game after all these years, even with three losses on their resume, Barr crushed their hopes — in the form of Barkley — and thus, turned a new page in this UCLA-USC rivalry and, likely, in the Pac-12 pecking order.
It won’t be the same, this dynamic. USC is on shaky grounds with its head coach, that beloved quarterback will move on after his senior year, and a bevy of senior talent could be lost to the NFL. Meanwhile, UCLA returns all but one of its offensive linemen and has a star quarterback of its own that largely outperformed Barkley on Saturday night.
The perception of UCLA — as the perennial joke of the Pac-12 over the past decade — has changed. UCLA fans no longer can sigh, “This is the UCLA we’ve grown to know and hate.” This team legitimized itself by bringing down the most recent line of prolific Trojan quarterbacks and forcing him to eat turf, by putting the conference on notice, letting others know that this team was not to be screwed with anymore.
The Barkley sack will likely go down in history as one of the greatest moments for UCLA in this rivalry in the past decade and the turning point of the program. The quarterback that brought the onslaught that was 50-0, the kid who directly turned down UCLA to go to USC, the boy who was supposed to raise that sword after dragging a program up to the surface straight out of hell, was buried in the mud by an All-American in his own right.
That was the last that Barkley ever got to see of UCLA. He never redeemed himself by coming out for another play. The symbolism of optimism for USC had snapped his final snap against their arch-rivals and it ended with his face in the grass.
And Anthony Barr arose, nonchalantly, looking down at Barkley and over to his teammates, in triumph, but not in celebration. He may not have known it, but his demeanor became a symbol of just how routine this — UCLA’s dominance in the very near future — would become.
Barkley won’t get his last shot at Notre Dame, currently the top team in the nation. He’ll be back in time for the Sun Bowl, or the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, or whatever bowl these Trojans find themselves in.
But he’ll know that the unfinished business he sought to complete would go unfinished. He’ll know that, in his final year at USC, he became the symbol of handing the Victory Bell over to these 2012 Bruins at the turn of another decade.
And he’ll know that, much like he was on the wrong side of that sack, he was on the wrong side of history.