It might have been the weirdest tailgate anyone could imagine. For the Marshall family, the moment was totally theirs. High atop Baboon Peak, elevation 7,300 feet, Thane Marshall hooked up his Dish TV receiver to a portable generator last Saturday.
They had driven 29 miles south from tiny Milford, Utah (population: 1,400) — Thane, his son Wes and their spouses — to hunt deer for the weekend. That was just a cover. It turned out exactly no wildlife were harmed in the viewing of Milford native son Bryson Barnes beating USC.
“If anybody was hunting deer, there wasn’t a deer within 20 miles,” said Thane, Barnes’ coach at Milford High School. “They got scared away. We were all screaming.”
Unless you’ve been up on Baboon Peak yourself, you probably know that Barnes has become one of the college football’s most celebrated figures this season. The Utah quarterback, who won two state titles at Milford, engineered the upset of the Trojans last week that kept the Utes on point and solidified USC as one giant question mark.
Along the way, beyond Milford, Barnes has been elevated to hero status. Because of injuries to starter Cam Rising, Barnes has played in the last two Rose Bowls. Because Rising has been declared out for the season having blown out a knee in the last Rose Bowl, Barnes is QB1 with a bullet.
Not bad for a guy who has bailed out a program. Not bad for a guy who has permanently replaced the other quarterback, Nate Johnson, whose play had become ragged. Not bad for a former walk-on who endured scout team hell, and now, football heaven.
“The best way possible [this ends] is he actually makes the NFL,” Thane said. “What I would really like to see him do is win a College Football Playoff game at Utah. It’s possible.”
The winner of Saturday’s game at the madhouse that is Rice-Eccles Stadium at least stays in the CFP running. But in a town 3 ½ hours away from campus in southwestern Utah, they long ago saw indications of this from a kid who worked on his family’s pig farm and never seemed to wind down sports.
Wes Marshall was Barnes’ offensive coordinator. Father, son and hometown hero won two state titles at the state’s smallest Class 1A school playing 11-man football.
“It’s kind of fun for us down here,” Thane said. “You watch these Heisman Trophy winners and these five-star quarterbacks. We told a couple of college coaches Bryson is more talented, well, just as talented as those guys they’re recruiting; he just doesn’t have the talent around him.”
The bond remains strong as it has to be for one who never forgets his roots. Barnes has a sister who runs track at Weber State. An older brother played for Milford and is currently on a Mormon mission. A younger brother plays for the Tigers now. Chris, his father, works for the railroad. Stacy, his mother, helped run the family’s pig farm.
“Bryson’s probably the worst athlete of the group,” said Thane. “He always had his mother’s legs. My defensive coordinator [once] kicked him out of the meeting and called him ‘Shirley.'”
But in a Stetson Bennett sort of way, the Utah quarterback has gone through what amounts to basic training. From official visit at Washington State to full-ride offer at FCS Southern Utah to America’s hero at Utah where he walked on.
How did it get to be that way? Well, first, those other schools missed out.
Barnes goes into the Oregon game tied for 12th in the Pac-12 in passing. He’s also darn close to being the Pac-12 MVP considering where overachieving Utah stands at the moment. That is 6-1 as the two-time reigning Pac-12 champions.
“If you’ve got a dream and you’ve got the ability to make it happen, he’s proof of that,” Wes said.
But when Utah’s Cole Becker kicked a 38-yard game-winning field goal against USC after Barnes’ run set it up the play, you could call him an inspiration. Certainly, a difference maker — at least for this week but perhaps for the season depending how far Utah goes.
Only football does this to people. Milford just happens to be the latest center of such a transformation. The Barnes kid was a bit of a football savant as a grade schooler. He would break down his youth league football games in fifth grade and hand a report to his coaches, according to The Athletic.
Wes moonlighted at the Beaver County Correctional Facility as a prison guard. Barnes would hit him up on his phone to go over game film.
“He’s always just loved the process,” Wes said. “He understood coverages in eighth grade.”
Barnes’ LinkedIn page is one of the most humble business bios in existence, at least for a starting Power Five quarterback. Did we mention Barnes was a customer associate at Lowe’s? In addition to working on the pig farm, he also worked in plumbing and installing solar panels as well as “screw pile systems.”
Such is the life of that former walk-on who earned a scholarship after the season-opening win over Florida.
About that pig farm. Barnes would have to get up at 4 a.m. to tend to the pork. It was part of his 24-hour energy. He also wrestled, ran track and played basketball and baseball.
According to the Marshalls, Mike Leach said Barnes was just as good as anyone at the Army All-America Game during Barnes’ senior year. Barnes actually took a visit to Wazzu as the coaches said Leach was ready to offer a preferred walk-on spot. A week later, Leach took the job at Mississippi State.
Everything has worked out.
“I knew if they gave Bryson a chance he could do this,” Wes said. “… I really wasn’t surprised.”
Others were. In high school, Barnes wrestled at 145 pounds. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds in college, he isn’t particularly imposing now. Still, he has become an inspirational, if not statistical, difference maker.
Barnes’ 26-yard run with 16 seconds left that set up the game-winning field goal at USC? It didn’t make sense. For the most part, the Trojans are bigger, faster, stronger. The same applies to the Ducks, in a matchup that has drawn national attention.
“He’s a tough guy. He’s a really tough guy,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of Barnes this week. “Those two scrambles where he lowered the shoulder and just went, that’s who he is. … In that situation, the game was on the line. Every scramble and run is not created equal.”
How did it get to be that way? Utah is built different. Under Whittingham, you’re going to have to beat the Utes up before beating them. That seldom happens. The Utah ethic is so well known that the Utes might be the early favorite when they enter the Big 12 next season.
Barnes fits the mold. Thane recalls Barnes taking over the quarterback job as a freshman, then playing without a backup at the position for four years. Ironically, back then, he had to warn his quarterback about lowering his shoulder with no safety net. It didn’t take. Such are the depth issues at a high school with 110 students, half of which are boys. Out of those approximately 55, 36 play football.
In the 2018 state semifinal game, Barnes directed an offense that scored touchdowns on seven of 10 possessions. The Tigers scored 70 points and won by 48.
The bond remains strong as it has to be for one who never forgets his roots. Barnes recently drove those 3 ½ hours following the Gators win to watch the Tigers play. Of course, he appeared on the radio postgame show with his coach.
As for Saturday?
“We’re going to be glued to the TV,” Thane said. “We may be on the mountain again.”