Group of 5 Spotlight: Blake Barnett Finds His Fit at USF, Eastern Michigan Upsets Another Big Ten Team

The former Alabama quarterback is hitting his stride running with the Bulls

Earning a college degree, getting married, welcoming a first-born child into the world, moving across the country, and taking one last shot at a dream job are all life-altering events. Imagine reaching each of these milestones in a single year.

 

Now, envision doing so at 21 and 22 years old. That's life for USF quarterback Blake Barnett.

 

Since his wedding to surfer Maddie Peterson last August, Barnett and his wife added Brooks Archer to their family in March. Barnett finished his undergraduate studies at Arizona State a few weeks later, and with an opportunity to play quarterback at USF, moved from Tempe to Tampa.

 

Just reading that timeline may be enough to spark anxiety in some. For a young man finding his right fit, however, a seemingly chaotic course of events brings stability.

 

"Everything just happened so fast, and it's been so nonstop, it's allowed me to transition pretty smoothly, honestly," Barnett said. "With so much going on and so many moving parts, I've been prepared to adapt on the fly. Things have worked out."

 

With a good decade's worth of life experiences packed into a calendar year, it's no wonder USF head coach Charlie Strong calls Barnett, "very mature." Barnett has had to be, juggling adult responsibilities with his continued pursuit of football glory; a pursuit that saw the California kid and former 5-star prospect traverse the continent and land at his third FBS program in as many years.

 

Barnett arrived at Alabama in 2015, arguably the most ballyhooed recruit of that year's class, stepping into the most successful program in college football. His unique combination of skills — boasting a strong arm, uncanny field vision and quick feet — seemed like a potential game-changer. If Alabama dominated the landscape with quarterbacks primarily known as game managers under Nick Saban, imagine the Crimson Tide with elite athleticism and playmaking ability.

 

After redshirting behind Jacob Coker in 2015, however, Barnett's time behind center at Alabama in '16 was brief. He rotated with true freshman Jalen Hurts in the Week 1 drubbing of USC, and looked good doing so — 5-of-6 for 100 yards with a touchdown — but otherwise was relegated to mop-up duty in routs of Western Kentucky and Kent State before his time with the Tide ended.

 

He transferred to Arizona State, and — upon winning an appeal to the NCAA for immediately eligibility — jumped into competition for the starting job with returning starter and current Sun Devils quarterback, Manny Wilkins. Wilkins was the one constant of Arizona State's offense from the time Barnett first committed to the Sun Devils to his departure, however.

 

Assistants Jay Norvell and Chip Lindsey, who helped recruit Barnett to Arizona State, were gone just a few weeks later for the head-coaching and offensive coordinator vacancies at Nevada and Auburn, respectively. Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham was fired in November, and the arrival of Herm Edwards ushered in a new staff.

 

Wilkins was coming off a strong 2017, his fourth year in the program, and wholesale turnover limited Barnett's opportunities for growth in the desert.

 

"Almost every quarterback does [need time to grow into their potential]," said Barnett's Santiago (Corona) High School head coach, Jeff Steinberg. "The whole myth about them being child prodigies; there’s very few who are."

 

Steinberg, now the coach at Beaumont High School in California, remains in contact with Barnett. Maintaining that pipeline back home gave Barnett some gridiron support and stability at a time when his football career was shrouded in uncertainty.

 

"It means a lot. He's been by my side through the ups and downs, since my freshman year of high school," Barnett said.

 

Barnett became something of a star in football circles during his high school years. The national attention heaped on Barnett before he ever left Southern California for Tuscaloosa set a high bar that's now become the standard for quarterbacks of Barnett's mold.

 

He checked every box for a blue-chip prospect: 6-foot-5, rocket arm, impressive pedigree that included individual workouts with former NFL starter Jeff Garcia.

 

"People get caught up in stuff like that, whether a kid’s got a strong arm or he’s got the height requirement. When you get to the next level, they’ve pretty much all got that," Steinberg said. "The guys who seem to go far are the guys who really love the game, and the work that goes into getting ready."

 

Steinberg said that's exactly the kind of attitude Barnett exuded at Santiago, and it's the attribute Strong said has made the quarterback an immediate fit for USF.

 

Barnett's arrival as a graduate transfer in May offered a solution to replace Quinton Flowers, a three-year starter, dual-threat standout and one of the most electrifying players in college football. Flowers rushed for more yards than any quarterback in 2016 save Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. That was Willie Taggart's last season as the Bulls head coach.

 

Strong and his staff arrived before the 2017 season, and understood the caliber of playmaker they inherited in Flowers.

 

"The thing about Q, they did something totally different when we got here, and they were really good on offense," Strong said. "So [offensive coordinator Sterlin] Gilbert took some of what they did and played to [Flowers]’ strengths.

 

"That’s what coach Gilbert has done with Blake," Strong added. "Blake has a different skill set, so he’s played to that skill set and allowed Blake to have success because of Blake learning and doing everything we’ve asked him to do."

 

Gilbert's offense has showcased Barnett's arm. He heads into a Week 3 matchup with Illinois at Soldier Field sporting 512 yards and five touchdowns, while completing better than 69 percent of his pass attempts. At the same time, the Bulls have not lost the threat of the run from the quarterback position in the transition from Flowers to Barnett.

 

His two touchdown carries in the fourth quarter last Saturday against Georgia Tech sealed a USF win, and capped an 86-yard day for Barnett.

 

 

"What a lot of people don’t realize is he can run the ball well," Strong said. "He’s able to stand tall in the pocket and release the ball, and if it does break down, he’s able to use his feet and run away from it."

 

Barnett's display of mobility against the Yellow Jackets prompted a flurry of surprise on social media. Who knew a 6-foot-5 quarterback, recruited to Alabama at a time when the Crimson Tide were known for traditional drop-back players, could move like that?

 

"I knew," Steinberg said. "I could show you tape from his junior year [of high school]. The kid can boogie."

 

For Barnett, the ability to show off his wheels is just one reason USF has been a fit for Barnett — and vice versa.

 

"Being able to run around a little bit and get hit, it's refreshing," he said. "It's been a while since that happened, and I really enjoy that aspect of the game."

 

So long as it continues to result in touchdowns like the two he scored against Georgia Tech, the Bulls will enjoy that element of Barnett's game too. And, to be sure, the potential for more big plays with his arm or feet awaits.

 

After all, Barnett's still only been in the program for a few months, and continues learning the playbook. Despite helping Maddie with some of those late nights with baby, Barnett said the greatest challenge amid the change has been mastering the offense.

 

Support from his new teammates and coaches are easing Barnett through that process, too.

 

"The team’s been really welcoming," he said. "They’ve really accepted me, and I’m appreciative of that."

 

Several years of major life milestones have gone smoothly over these past few months. Still, the gravity of his path to this point isn't lost on Barnett.

 

"I’ve been on a journey," he said. "Being able to get settled in here has been nice."

 

* * *

 

#FocusFightFinish

Facing fourth down and 15 yards to go Saturday in Ross-Ade Stadium, one play could either continue Eastern Michigan's upset bid of Purdue, or doom the Eagles to their seventh single-possession loss in the calendar year. No pressure.

 

"Going into that last drive, I don’t think anybody had any nervousness or doubt," said Eagles quarterback Tyler Wiegers.

 

That calm culminated with placekicker Chad Ryland booting through a 24-yard field goal as time expired, sealing the 20-19 win.

 

 

And the Eagles needed unflappable nerves to convert a make-or-break fourth down in their own territory, leading to Ryland's kick.

 

"I knew we were in a tough situation and I had to throw the ball down the field to get a conversion," Wiegers said. "[Purdue] came out and had a coverage that looked good for the route we had called. They brought a blitz and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold onto to it too long."

 

Wiegers delivered a pass to wide receiver Arthur Jackson III, who "ran a great route and ... made a great play to extend the drive."

 

The 23-yard gain moved Eastern Michigan into Purdue territory. After a pass interference penalty and three Ian Eriksen runs, the stage was set for the Eagles to beat a Big Ten opponent for the second time in as many years. Last season's defeat of Rutgers marked the program's first against a team from the Power 5 conference.

 

While now having a winning streak against the Big Ten is a cause for celebration — which Wiegers said the Eagles did in the locker room with the newly introduced Mid-American Conference Jolly Roger — head coach Chris Creighton offered a reminder ahead of Eastern Michigan's MAC opener against Buffalo.

 

"Last year, [beating a Big Ten team] meant we lost the next six games," Creighton said with a slight chuckle. "I remember telling the guys in the locker room at Rutgers, 'This can't be our greatest moment this year.' In many ways, it ended up being that. In back-to-back years, you can't help but realize that we were not able to win close games after that close game at Rutgers."

 

Indeed, Eastern Michigan's ensuing six-game losing skid after the Rutgers upset were all games decided by one possession. But while those close losses became the looming and definitive narrative of the Eagles' 2017, Creighton pointed out that the final two contests — wins over Miami and Bowling Green — were by three points each.

 

With the one-point win at Purdue, Eastern Michigan doesn't just have a winning streak against the Big Ten; it's now a winner in three straight games decided by a field goal or less.

 

Near Perfect

Every football player and coach strives for the impossible goal of perfection. Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas played what might well qualify as the perfect game.

 

Thomas went 14-of-14 passing in the Mountaineers' 45-9 rout of Charlotte with three touchdowns. His final yardage output fell just short of a perfect bowling game's 300; Thomas tallied 295. In just 14 completions, however, he averaged a staggering 21.1 yards per pass.

 

 

Thomas may have been flawless, but one official was not. Important reminder: It's not pronounced App-a-LAY-shun.

 

Game-Changers

Chicago's Soldier Field was home to arguably the greatest kick returner in NFL history with Devin Hester. Saturday when Illinois meets USF at Soldier Field, the stadium welcomes Terrence Horne, currently having the best season for a kick returner in college football.

 

Horne returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns on back-to-back opportunities in the first half against Georgia Tech.

 

 

Middle Tennessee safety Gregory Grate Jr. matched Horne's distance on one of those two kickoff returns, albeit on defense. His interception return in the Blue Raiders' win over FCS opponent UT Martin capped a 35-point second half.

 

 

Officially, Malcolm Perry's touchdown run to key Navy's fourth-quarter comeback against Memphis went for 19 yards. Adding up all the cutbacks, however, Perry may well have gone for a total approaching Horne's kickoff return or Grate's pick-six.

 

 

In a rare home-field opportunity for a Group of 5 member against a representative of the SEC, Colorado State rallied from 27-9 down to beat Arkansas, 34-27. Rams quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels passed for 389 yards, firing in the fourth quarter to move Colorado State quickly down field. Izzy Matthews gained 15 of his 27 rushing yards at the most opportune time, including on the game-winning touchdown.

 

But the key game-changer in Colorado State's comeback was its defensive effort. After surrendering a 64-yard Cole Kelley-to-T.J. Hammonds touchdown midway through the third quarter that made the score 27-9, the Rams held the Razorbacks to 34 yards on 17 plays over four possessions for the next quarter-and-a-half.

 

Home-Field Advantage

At Mountain West media days 2015, San Diego State head coach Rocky Long posited Power 5 programs avoid scheduling road games against Group of 5 out of fear.

 

Long's Aztecs are one of two Group of 5 programs with home-field advantage against Power 5 opponents in Week 3. San Diego State hosts No. 23-ranked Arizona State in a rematch of last season's Aztecs win. Gone is running back Rashaad Penny, who gashed the Sun Devils for 216 rushing yards, with touchdowns on a run, reception and kickoff return.

 

In his place, however, is Juwan Washington. Washington ranks second nationally in rushing yards per game behind only Wisconsin Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor, and third in total rushing yards.

 

Saturday's other Power 5-at-Group of 5 matchup sees Miami travel to Toledo's Glass Bowl.

 

"It certainly brings notoriety to your program any time you can bring in a top 10 program, in my opinion, historically, to play in front of your fans," said Toledo head coach Jason Candle. "This game will be sold out, packed. It'll be a big deal for our city."

 

The Glass Bowl's a unique Group of 5 venue in that it's hosted a variety of Power 5 and high-profile programs in recent years. Candle cited Missouri and a Boise State team that, in 2011, visited with a No. 4 ranking. But he added the stadium had seen "none the magnitude of the Miami Hurricanes."

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of TheOpenMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

 

(Top photo courtesy of @Blake8Barnett)

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