7:17 PM PST, November 10, 2012
Deflate the balls until they are prunes, switch the jerseys until Lane Kiffin is wearing one, and it still won't detract from one undeniable USC truth.
Marqise Lee is the best college football player in the country.
Talk about firing the coach, rip the defense so bad that Mike Brown applies to replace Monte Kiffin, and there is still only one undebatable USC conversation.
Marqise Lee deserves the Heisman Trophy, and would actually have a chance of winning it if the Trojans had won more games.
During a rare break from a controversy-filled autumn, Lee reminded everyone Saturday what should have been this team's narrative all along. While his team took a deep cleansing breath in a 38-17 victory over Arizona State, Lee continued to take away everyone else's breath, one play at a time.
"He's good," said Sun Devils safety Alden Darby, who couldn't help himself and said it again. "He's good."
Where should we start? How about 45 minutes before the game, when Lee walked into Kiffin's office with a face swollen and eyes nearly shut from an apparent food allergy.
"It looked like I was in a boxing match and I lost," Lee said.
How should we end? How about the sophomore receiver battling the lethargic effects of the reaction to gain 227 all-purpose yards, a category in which he already leads major-college football. He lost a fumble on the Trojans' first offensive play, then spent the rest of the game making the Sun Devils lose their minds.
"I felt like I wasn't running as fast as I could," Lee said. "I mean, they were about to catch me, man!"
About to catch him? Like everyone else who has chased him across America's football fields for the last couple of months, the Sun Devils weren't even close. Lee scored a touchdown after catching a Matt Barkley pass around midfield and outrunning two defenders. Lee averaged 11 yards per carry the six times he ran the ball. And then there was his most amazing play of the afternoon, so jaw-dropping that it didn't matter he didn't score.
"It was a reverse, but he reversed the reverse," said Barkley, perfectly describing the indescribable.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Lee took a pitch from Barkley, ran left and found himself stuck in traffic deep in the backfield. He shrugged and ran in the other direction, sprinting around or shaking off several defenders before being dragged down on the right sideline 38 yards away.
"It was good blocking," chirped the constantly cheerful Lee, who unselfishly always says it is good blocking even when there is no blocking. "No, really, this time, even Matt Barkley threw the last block."
"I got in the way," Barkley said. "My strength coach gave me an 'A' for effort but an 'F' for style."
Lee has pretty much aced the season, and in more classes than just receiving and running.
How about psychology? The Sun Devils were so afraid to kick off to him, they squibbed the ball each time, helping the Trojans to an average starting field position of their own 42-yard line. And on the one play when Lee was inserted into the game as a safety — yeah, he's going to play some defense in these final weeks — the Sun Devils were so flummoxed they were assessed a penalty for delay of game.
"You kind of expect greatness from him every time he touches the ball," Barkley said.
Considering he has caught 663 yards worth of passes for five touchdowns in the last three games, Lee should be moving into Heisman greatness. Even a Trojans publicity machine that began the year promoting Barkley has smartly started sending out Lee videos, and the giant Coliseum scoreboard Saturday displayed a quote from Oregon Coach Chip Kelly that read, "He may be the best receiver I've had the opportunity to coach against."
But, well, Kelly's running back Kenjon Barner reportedly has a strong lead over Lee in the Heisman race. So does Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, and probably now even Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. All those guys play for unbeaten teams or a team that has beaten Alabama.
Lee lacks the overall record or the signature win to break into that group, and it would take victories over UCLA , Notre Dame and maybe even Oregon in the conference championship game — if USC can get there — to make that happen. So, realistically, the best college football player in the country will have to wait until next season to make a serious run for the trophy that certifies that title.
That's OK. Until then, he can work on figuring out what food turned his smiling face so sour.
"Chips?" he wondered with a giggle.
It wasn't so funny to Kiffin, who couldn't believe one of his most stressful weeks nearly ended with his best player looking like a cartoon character. When Lee approached his coach with his swelling problem before the game, the coach nearly had his own allergic reaction.
"I was really to the point of thinking there's some really bad karma going on this week," Kiffin said. "I thought, 'This really can't be happening now, with arguably the best player in college football.' "
Lee was given some medicine. The swelling went down immediately. He took the field, fumbled the ball, opened those eyes, and spent the next three hours doing what he has been doing all season.
Afterward, he grabbed the sword and directed the Trojans marching band, noteworthy in that it was the first time all day somebody kept up with him.
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