- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Lately, the pleasant surprises have been more prevalent than the disappointments.
That's another way of saying the USC Trojans are beginning to find their stride just as the season winds down. It didn't have to be this way. Nobody really knew how this season was going to turn out. Of the 76 players who have gotten in games, 40 of them had never played a USC snap before this season.
The USC coaches have played nine true freshmen and 14 redshirt freshmen.
They've lived with youthful mistakes, but seen some of their most blinding talents emerge from this untested group of players. Heading into the season finale against UCLA, let's take a look at one of the Trojans' youngest players and one of its oldest. Appropriately, it was the younger player who had the greater impact.
ONE UP: MARQISE LEE
In case you hadn't noticed, USC coach Lane Kiffin has opened up the playbook in recent weeks, calling more drop-back passing and deep strikes. In part, that's because his offensive line has proven it can protect quarterback Matt Barkley. In part, it's because Barkley now has two extraordinary weapons.
Five months ago, few people would have predicted this kind of stardom for Marqise Lee. He was overshadowed at his own high school, Serra High of Gardena, by current teammates Robert Woods and George Farmer. Much like Woods the year before, he edged ahead of more-decorated freshmen receivers in preseason camps.
"The addition of Marqise to Robert helps a lot with making me look good," Barkley said. "I have a lot of confidence in him to make plays."
Perhaps the main reason USC's future now looks so bright is that they'll have Woods and Lee together for at least one more season, maybe two. It's scary to think how good they can be if they continue to develop.
Only one freshman receiver in the nation, Clemson's Sammy Watkins, has more touchdown catches than Lee's nine. He's become the big-play threat while Woods has been nursing a couple of injuries. Eight of his nine TD catches have been of 24 yards or longer.
The seed for USC's upset of Oregon at Autzen Stadium was planted when Barkley found Lee on a 59-yard TD pass to jump ahead, 14-0. Given the conditions USC has been playing under, Lee -- who doesn't turn 19 until Friday -- is the perfect symbol of a youthful team playing beyond its years.
ONE DOWN: CHRIS GALIPPO
When Pete Carroll's staff managed to secure linebacker Chris Galippo out of Servite High in 2007, it was viewed as a major recruiting score on two levels. Galippo was among the most-decorated defensive players in the nation and he also worked as a ringleader of that class, helping the coaches lock down one of the best recruiting classes in the nation.
Five injury-plagued seasons later, Galippo's USC career never quite lived up to the billing.
Last season, he faced pressure for his starting spot from Devon Kennard. Even after the coaches moved Kennard to defensive end, Galippo still wasn't able to hold down the middle of the Trojans' defense. Talented freshman Lamar Dawson slipped ahead of Galippo on the depth chart late this season and has been holding down the bulk of the playing time.
Back injuries have dogged Galippo since high school. It also didn't help that the Trojans switched coaches midway through his college career. Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense isn't the best showcase for Galippo's talents. The best middle linebackers in that scheme tend to be smaller, faster players, who can sprint down the middle of the field in pass coverage. Galippo is 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds..
“I think I’ve been thrown a lot of curveballs in my career," Galippo told ESPNLA's Pedro Moura earlier this season. "This is just another one. It’s just something else I have to work through. It’s a lot like getting hurt or having to work through stuff like that."
To his credit, Galippo hasn't criticized coaches publicly and he's continued to play hard. With a big game against UCLA, he could still end his USC career on a high note. He and Christian Tupou are the only senior contributors on the defensive side.
Kiffin said he won't play seniors for sentimental reasons, but it's hard to imagine Galippo doesn't get one more chance to shine.
LOS ANGELES -- Lately, the pleasant surprises have been more prevalent than the disappointments.That's another way of saying the USC Trojans are beginning to find their stride just as the season winds down.