One play, one large impact
October, 5, 2012
By Pedro Moura | ESPNLosAngeles.com
SALT LAKE CITY -- No. 13 USC was up just three points three minutes into the fourth quarter of Thursday night's game against Utah, having gone scoreless in a tight third quarter.
Then a monstrous Utes punt forced the Trojans to start their drive in a precarious position -- inside their own 20, with the raucous Rice-Eccles Stadium at its loudest.
Coach Lane Kiffin proceeded to call his riskiest play of the game, and everything changed. Matt Barkley faked a handoff to D.J. Morgan to the left side and dropped back to his right, giving his receivers time to run down field. Barkley then perfectly delivered a 60-yard bomb to Marqise Lee, who took it the remaining 30 yards for the score, evading one prospective tackler in the process.
Just like that, USC was up by 10, the crowd was deflated and the Trojans showed the country they could still be a dynamic, deep-throwing offense.
"The game just changed," Kiffin said afterward. "That shows the confidence of the coaches in the quarterback and No. 9 -- not too many staffs are going to call that play right there. They're just going to run the ball and try to get the clock moving.
"We went for the knockout shot."
USC knocked the Utes to the mat with the pass. Nickell Robey's pick-six on the ensuing drive knocked them out for the game.
But Barkley's pass -- the longest of his 41-game college career -- meant more than that. How often this season have the Trojans thrown deep successfully?
It hadn't happened much all year, actually. And Kiffin knew that.
"We've been a little bit off on those," Kiffin said, recalling a similar attempt against Cal that barely missed. "That's obviously awesome to have."
USC had eight blockers in on the play -- the offensive line plus Morgan, tight end Xavier Grimble and fullback Soma Vainuku. That gave Barkley more time to throw than he's had on his other deep drop-backs this season.
"I thought it was a great setup," Barkley said. "We were backed up after that long punt and came back on the first play of the series. Our running game had been doing really well. It was pretty much a max-protection play-action, with Marqise kind of 1-on-1. The corner fell off so he just had to beat the safety in his face, and he made a great play.
"I didn't doubt that he would come up with it."
Lee, the sophomore sensation with 192 receiving yards on the night, said he was so tired by the time he got down field that he made a point to not waste his effort. He's had a few big drops this year and also took an odd angle on the deep throw against Cal that Kiffin referenced.
"In my head, I was thinking, 'I don't want to run all this way without catching the ball,'" Lee said. "So I caught the ball, saw the defender, made one move and scored."
Lee refrained from saying that the Trojans emphasized throwing successful long balls in Thursday's game. But he said he understands that "other people on the outside expect us to go deep," and USC "tried to open things up a little bit more."
Because of the run game the Trojans showed against Cal two weeks ago, Utah had to pay more respect to Silas Redd and Co. this time.
"You take what they give," Lee said Thursday. "That's what they gave us."
USC moves to 4-1 on the season, coming off its best all-around performance of the year. There's more hope for the rest of the season than there was before Thursday night's game.
This season is also starting to parallel last one. The Trojans lost to a lower-ranked opponent on the road (Arizona State in 2011, Stanford in 2012), rebounded to beat a mediocre team at home (Arizona in 2011, Cal in 2012), and then followed it with a better Thursday night performance on the road (Cal in 2011, Utah in 2012.)
If the pattern is to continue, USC will play even better against Washington next week, such as against Notre Dame last year.
"Much like last year," Kiffin said Thursday, "after our first bad road trip, we started playing a lot better.
"Hopefully this will be the case."