California cool under center just what USF needs for hot start

USF quarterback Blake Barnett (11) celebrates scoring a touchdown during the second half. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
USF quarterback Blake Barnett (11) celebrates scoring a touchdown during the second half. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published September 8 2018

TAMPA — We're two games in and I already like the new USF quarterback, the 22-year-old who has been there and back, whom teammates call "Pops." The California kid, out of San Diego, surfer dude and everything.

Married a pro surfer even. He and his wife, Maddie, have a 5-month-old son. Daddy can't wait for him to catch his first wave.

"Brooks Archer Barnett," Blake Barnett said with a grin. "He's handsome, too."

Meanwhile, surf is finally up for Blake Archer Barnett, the graduate transfer from Coronado, Calif. It was gnarly out there Saturday, but Barnett and his teammates rode a wave all their own in 49-38 comeback win over Georgia Tech at Raymond James Stadium. A win over a Power Five team, albeit an average one. A win despite surrendering an astounding 602 yards, a whopping 419 yards rushing. A win despite Barnett throwing an interception on his second pass of a smoldering afternoon.

The victory came in many parts, including the welcome breeze in the noon-time kickoff heat generated by freshman Terrence Horne, who dazzled with two kickoff returns for touchdowns inside of three minutes in the first quarter. And two big turnovers USF forced in the fourth quarter stoked the comeback, a fumble recovery and an interception by Nico Sawtelle.

But it was a Blake Barnett day, too, despite that opening pick, despite the long ball not being there most of the game. Saturday did not have the air of Barnett's wonderful USF debut, when he threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another TD. But Saturday was special, too. It was about winning, about resiliency.

You looked up at the end and Barnett had beaten Tech with his arm and his feet with three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes, the last two on runs of 19 and 5 yards, respectively. You looked up and you saw a leader who took USF from down 38-28 to 2-0.

No, this wasn't the Georgia Tech team that covered against Cumberland in 1916 (222-0). These weren't the Yellow Jackets who won a share of the national title in 1990. It was an average ACC team. But it was stage enough, and Barnett owned it enough when it mattered, throwing for 202 yards and two TDs and running for those two scores.

Yes, the kid — the man — can run.

"He has a lot more ability than people think," USF coach Charlie Strong said.

The Bulls are going to need it the way they play, or don't play, defense. I don't know how many times you can beat someone 49-38 inside of one football season. But Barnett has something, an "it" factor. Strong thinks he knows why

"The thing about Blake is I think he wants to prove that he can really play," Strong said. "You think about it. Three years ago, he was the No. 1 quarterback. Then he goes to Alabama and he goes to Arizona State and he kind of disappears. For him to battle. You're right, he throws the interception, but he still kept battling."

Barnett said he saw his team's comeback before it ever happened.

"You could see it in their eyes," he said.

Just as important, they saw it in his.

"This is something that kids like myself dream about from being really young," Barnett said.

He was a top-ranked pocket passer and dual threat in high school. Unlimited ceiling. But he threw just two touchdowns for Alabama before moving on, then none at Arizona State. Now he's here, taking graduate courses at night, 6:30-10:15, playing quarterback during the day. Playing with his son, too.

"His maturity is so much ahead of a lot of guys," Strong said. "He's married and has a child, but you wouldn't know it. He's still playful at 22 years old. That's why you like him so much. He has that competitive spirit within in him where he just battles. This was big for him, too, the opponent and for him to have the stage he had on national TV. Now everybody's getting a chance to watch him."

"He's bonded with the team," said USF slot receiver Tyre McCants, who had 10 catches for 99 yards Saturday. "He's one of those guys, him being a quarterback, he has to grow quicker than everybody else, and I think that's something he's doing. He's just rolling. That's all we can ask for."

Barnett understands the skepticism people had at his arrival.

"If they did, they had every right to (be skeptical)," he said. "All I wanted to do was prove myself. Prove myself to the coaches, prove myself to the team. I think they're starting to see that. It means a lot for guys to trust and feel like they can depend on me."

Teammates like McCants speak of how laidback Barnett is, about his cool and calm. But Barnett doesn't want us dudes to go Jeff Spicoli on him. He only began surfing the Pacific after he met his wife.

"I hold my own," Barnett said. "I'm all right. It kind of gets my mind off everything. It's really relaxing. I'm not the California surfer guy that people probably think, but I have a lot of surfer friends."

Blake Barnett rode it all the way in on Saturday. Tasty wave.


Contact Martin Fennelly at or (813) 731-8029.