USC coach Lane Kiffin described it as continued “bad karma” in a week filled with controversy after a student manager was fired for deflating game balls during the first half of last Saturday’s defensive debacle against Oregon, resulting in a fine by the Pac-12.
Only 45 minutes before kickoff, sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee entered Kiffin’s office with a swollen face after suffering an allergic reaction to something he ate. Kiffin figured there was no chance the star wideout would recover in time for the game.
But Lee received sufficient treatment and emerged out of the Coliseum tunnel with his teammates in time for another transcendent performance — catching 10 passes for 161 yards and adding 66 yards on the ground — buoying No. 19 USC (7-3, 5-3) to a 38-17 win over Arizona State.
“He’s every bit deserving,” senior quarterback Matt Barkley said of Lee’s recent Heisman buzz. “He’s the best player in his position. He’s done some tremendous things this year as a receiver and kick returner and across the board.”
Down 7-0 in the first quarter, Barkley completed an 80-yard touchdown strike to Lee, in which the sophomore sensation knifed through double-coverage and outran his pursuers, gliding into the end zone after junior wide receiver Robert Woods supplied one final block.
“I’m going, ‘This really can’t be happening,’” Kiffin said when recounting Lee’s pregame visit. “As well as he played, that long touchdown pass isn’t even contested if he’s feeling himself. He’s arguably the best player in college football.”
The comfortable final victory margin and Lee’s continued fireworks belied what began as a competitive game in which the Trojans returned to the locker room at halftime amid a smattering of boos tied with the Sun Devils at 14 points apiece.
“I don’t really hear it,” Barkley said when asked about the boos entering halftime. “I kind of block out the noise, so I don’t hear those.”
USC committed three turnovers in the first half, including two interceptions to punctuate drives where the Trojans were poised to score touchdowns.
On the ensuing kickoff after Lee’s 80-yard score, senior linebacker Tony Burnett forced a fumble, which redshirt freshman linebacker Anthony Sarao recovered at the Sun Devils’ 29-yard line. Barkley threw an interception on the next play, however, as linebacker Chris Young made a sprawling catch on the sideline that was upheld after Kiffin’s challenge.
Arizona State’s next possession ended prematurely on senior safety T.J. McDonald’s second interception of the season, but Barkley and the USC offense proceeded to squander the short field opportunity. After a Woods offensive pass interference penalty negated a touchdown and a delay of game penalty set up a third-and-24 situation, Barkley threw a 76-yard pick-six to safety Alden Darby on a swing pass.
Undeterred, USC struck back to conclude the first half on a 13-play, 79-yard drive that culminated in a four-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Xavier Grimble.
“We know what the standards are here,” Kiffin said. “Coming up the tunnel with an Arizona State player I know well, we’re getting booed off the field with it as a tied game at half, and the player gave me a look; well, it is what it is, that’s L.A.”
The second half also began inauspiciously for USC, as Barkley threw his third interception on a pass tipped by onrushing defensive end Carl Bradford, who corralled the deflection as he fell to the ground. The play marked only the second time in his career that Barkley has thrown three interceptions in a game, with the last coming against Stanford in his freshman season in 2009.
Arizona State later capitalized on USC’s fourth turnover with a 28-yard field goal. The Sun Devils’ third score would mark the last time they notched points on the scoreboard, however, as the Trojans proceeded to score 24 unanswered points to bury the Sun Devils.
Senior running back Curtis McNeal emerged as the catalyst behind USC’s second-half surge. With Silas Redd unavailable, the Trojans’ other returning 1,000-yard rusher ran for 112 of his game-high 163 yards in the second half.
“It felt good,” McNeal said. “I’m worried about getting a ‘W’ even if I don’t get the ball.”
In addition to a 5-yard rushing touchdown, McNeal nimbly broke a couple of ankle tackles in the third quarter on a short screen pass that he ultimately converted into a 22-yard touchdown reception. Surprisingly, the two scores marked the only times he has visited the end zone in 2012.
“A lot of credit to the offensive line and Curtis, he had a great game except for the fumble at the end,” Kiffin said. “If you look at the hidden stats, the negative plays … Curtis only lost one yard today.”
The embattled defensive unit arguably put forth its best performance of the season, especially considering seven of the points surrendered came from Barkley’s pick-six in the second quarter. USC’s defensive front-seven, which was gashed by the Ducks’ rushing attack, rebounded nicely, registering seven sacks for 56 yards split between six defenders.
“Our guys were really more aggressive,” Kiffin said. “Not in defensive calls, but really the front-seven.”
The vaunted Sun Devils’ offense picked up a mere 71 yards on 35 carries. Moreover, USC stole three interceptions from Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly, who ranked third in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency entering the contest.
“It’s been rough, just because of the type of defense we are and the type of players we have,” senior safety T.J. McDonald said. “Others teams have gotten the best of us. … We needed to get that nasty taste out of our mouths.”
USC’s defense helped the team survive the “sandwich game” test between its nationally hyped heavyweight bout against Oregon and its rivalry showdown at UCLA this Saturday at noon.