LOS ANGELES — Arizona State entering the Coliseum was dangerous. USC head coach Lane Kiffin called it a sandwich game. The Sun Devils were spread in between USC’s huge meeting with Oregon and crosstown rival UCLA.
The Sun Devils couldn’t be overlooked because it was a must win for the Trojans if they wanted to control their own destiny for a chance to make it to the Rose Bowl.
In a most important game, Kiffin thought he was in danger of being without his most important player.
Marqise Lee walked into Kiffin’s office Saturday morning all out of sorts.
“My allergies is messed up. My eyes are swollen” Lee said as he took a seat in Kiffin’s office just 45 minutes before kickoff.
It left Kiffin in a moment of disbelief.
“I was really about to that point in thinking there’s just some really bad karma going around this week,” Kiffin said. “I’m going ‘this really can’t be happening right now to, arguably, the best player in college football the last couple of weeks with everything we got going on.”
Luckily for Kiffin, he put Lee in the hands of the USC trainers. They calmed him down and gave him some ice to ease the swelling. He was good to go, leading No. 19 USC to a 38-17 win over Arizona State (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12 South).
The swelling Kiffin saw on Lee’s face nearly compounded the week that was for USC (7-3, 5-3 Pac-12 South).
The defense was under fire after giving up more yards than the school had ever given up last week against Oregon. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, Kiffin spent nearly his entire Thursday meeting with the media discussing deflated balls.
And now this?
Kiffin said his star wideout wasn’t “himself” but some of Marqise Lee is better than most around the country. The Coliseum field dubbed as a platform for Lee. Earlier in the week, the school released a video promoting Lee for the Heisman Trophy. On Saturday, he produced more clips, finishing the game with 10 catches for 161 yards, and a touchdown.
It wasn’t all rose petals for USC and their Heisman candidate on Saturday. It started out very rocky and Lee wasn’t exempt.
After driving the ball 60 yards in just over two minutes, the Sun Devils were stopped on fourth down at the USC 21-yard line.
On the very next play, Lee caught a pass and while attempting to get more yards, he fumbled, giving it right back to Arizona State for the first of five USC turnovers on the day. The Sun Devils scored on the ensuing possession to take a 7-0 lead on a Taylor Kelly 34-yard pass to Chris Coyle.
The Trojans were lethargic for nearly the entire first quarter until Lee came through with a big play. USC needed just one play to go 80 yards when Matt Barkley found Lee up the sideline as he outran the secondary. Being chased, he darted clear across the field, looking intent to use an official as a shield to get into the endzone, as USC tied the game 7-7.
Kiffin said he would use Lee on defense in certain situations and he did on Saturday, sort of.
Lee came in at safety in the first quarter on a fourth down play for Arizona State, but the Sun Devils took a timeout and elected to punt leaving Lee without an official snap on defense.
“I was low key hot!” said Lee expressing his displeasure for not being able to play defense. “I thought I was going to get more than one (play) but we didn’t have to so it’s cool.”
The defense as a whole didn’t need much help from Lee. They looked like they did before the two-game losing streak against Arizona and Oregon.
It started up front with the defensive line. They recorded five of USC’s seven sacks on Saturday. Morgan Breslin and George Uko had a sack and a half each. Leonard Williams chipped in with a sack, two tackles for loss, and also a fourth quarter interception –the first of his career.
The Trojans forced four Arizona State turnovers and allowed just 250 yards of total offense.
“Mentally, we were right all week in practice,” said T.J. McDonald, who picked off his second pass of the season. “We expected to do this. We expected to come back and get right. It was just all about executing.
“We just needed to keep our head down, keep grinding, and get our swag back and that’s what we did today.”
The defense gave up just three points in the second half as USC scored 24 unanswered points to end the game.
Curtis McNeal scored three second-half touchdowns –two on the ground and one on a screen pass from Barkley. For McNeal, it was a page out of last season as he had the lion’s share of the carries with Silas Redd not available for Saturday’s game, according to Kiffin.
McNeal finished with 163 yards on the ground. His two rushing touchdowns were his first of the season.
However, the spotlight shined brightest on Lee, who caught half of Barkley’s 20 completions.
He was the quarterback in the Wildcat and the beneficiary of reverses called by Kiffin.
In the fourth quarter he took the ball on a reverse and was stopped in his tracks. The slippery Lee escaped and started towards the other side of the field.
“It was a reverse and then he reversed the reverse,” Barkley said. “It was pretty special.”
Lee picked up a block from Barkley on the way and turned what would have been a double digit loss into a 38-yard gain. It led to a Andre Heidari field goal that put the Trojans up 31-17.
It’s a play that will be shown if Lee finds his way to New York next month. It’s the type of play that has people mentioning Lee as a Heisman candidate and not Barkley. “He’s every bit deserving,” said Barkley, who completed 20-of-33 passes for 222 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions.
Kiffin believes so too, but for now he’d appreciate if his star player would feel better and not terrify him with thoughts of not being able to be in the lineup.
“(It was my) allergies that flare up sometimes,” Lee said as he left the Coliseum. “I got to figure it out. I don’t know.”