Matt Barkley and his Southern California teammates spent the past couple of months reminding each other not to get consumed by all the praise being thrown their way.
Now Barkley is spending this week making sure the Trojans don't get distracted by disappointment after their season got derailed at Stanford — and he's got to start with himself.
"I wasn't expecting that was going to happen this year," Barkley said Tuesday after another early-morning practice.
Three days after their 21-14 loss, No. 13 USC still can't quite believe how quickly its imperfections were exposed. The Trojans (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) strenuously avoided buying into the hype around their comeback season from a two-year postseason ban, yet they returned to practice determined to prove they're still better than the struggling team that lost to Stanford yet again and plummeted 11 spots in the rankings.
Barkley was crushed after the game, his senior season getting off to a start he never expected. Yet Barkley's determination to grow as a leader forced him to find a mature perspective on the loss: It's only September, after all, and the Trojans' dreams of major postseason success are very much alive.
Still, it stings, even three days later.
"The shock behind that, I wasn't expecting to happen," Barkley said. "I learned a lot from a defeat like that. You learn to come back the next day and to be the voice that we need. You've got to make sure it's a quick turnaround."
And Barkley realizes the spotlight will be directed squarely at his offense, which improbably was shut out in the second half.
USC's stars produced thoroughly pedestrian numbers, and the offensive line deserves much of the blame after looking overmatched against the Cardinal. Barkley went 20 for 41 with two interceptions, while Marqise Lee had eight catches for 100 yards, but didn't score. Silas Redd scored two touchdowns with just 17 yards rushing, and Curtis McNeal ran for only 37 yards.
"We're a little bit in shock," said All-American receiver Robert Woods, who had just four catches for 38 yards against Stanford. "But our defense played well. We've just got to produce on offense. That's our job. Our team spirits are still high. We know we can bounce back and play well."
The Trojans must patch their struggling offensive line in time to face California at the Coliseum on Saturday, so coach Lane Kiffin has re-opened competition for Aundrey Walker's starting job at left tackle.
Kiffin had strong words for Barkley after the game, saying the senior had made some bad decisions, but reserved his strongest criticism for the line that was missing injured Khaled Holmes, its senior center and leader.
"We're looking for finish," Kiffin said. "Guys are going to get beat. Guys are going to drop balls. You're going to make mistakes, but we won't tolerate lack of great effort, not when you put on these jerseys that all these great players have worn before. I think Aundrey is going to respond well to this."
Walker is the sophomore who replaced Matt Kalil, the fourth overall pick by Minnesota in last spring's draft. The 6-foot-6, 300-pounder from Cleveland is learning on the job, but feels he'll outperform Max Tuerk in practice this week to keep his position.
"I've just got to work hard and get better, too," Walker said. "It's nothing but motivation to get better. ... Khaled is a smart guy. He's a leader on the team, and we're looking forward to having him come back."
Barkley claimed the Cardinal's rush "didn't get to me," but it certainly appeared to succeed during the game. Barkley was sacked four times and hurried several more times, forcing throws into coverage for interceptions.
"A million times he's made the right decision there," Kiffin said. "That's going to happen to anybody when you start getting rushed and you're not getting protected the way you need to."
Kiffin is watching his Trojans for signs of a hangover, claiming he saw none Tuesday morning. USC has a bye after hosting the Golden Bears, so there's no reason to hold back anything in what's got to be a bounce-back game for a team that still harbors national title hopes after an early-season humbling.
"Just watch Saturday," Walker said. "That's all I've got to say."