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Special teams spark Trojans

LOS ANGELES -- All season, USC punter Kyle Negrete has been instructed to be invisible.

The Trojans have allowed just five punt returns this season, ranking them No. 3 in the country. Negrete hasn't conceded a touchback on a punt and has quietly placed 17 of his 28 attempts inside the 20-yard line.

But in the second quarter Saturday against the Washington Huskies, Negrete was asked to stand out in a big way. With the Trojans up 7-3 and facing fourth-and-9 from their own 45-yard line, Negrete corralled the snap and took off up the middle, racing for 35 yards and a first down.

"If they got in one look that they've been in all year, we were going to call that fake," Negrete said. "We had to punt a couple of times to see if they were going to stay in that look, but I give all the credit to coach John Baxter and the 10 guys in front of me that executed the play perfectly."

On the play, Negrete was supposed hit the turf instead of take on a tackler, as the Trojans don't have a backup punter, and the last thing Lane Kiffin wants to see is a punter trying to make a move in the secondary. But when the hole opened and Negrete took a look at the space in front of him, he knew he wasn't going to slide. The first down provided a boost, but the way Negrete finished the play might have had more of an effect.

"The coaches told me to slide, and I told them no way," Negrete said. "I haven't seen green grass like that since high school."

Negrete said he was determined to finish off his run by taking on a Washington defender, adding that it fits perfectly with his mentality. And while the coaches may have cringed watching the play unfold, the USC bench exploded. Negrete said the tailbacks especially loved it, and he could feel the entire team feed off the energy it created.

Five plays later, tailback Marc Tyler took a sweep and plowed in for a touchdown, giving USC a 14-3 lead. But Negrete's scamper stayed with the Trojans throughout the game.

"I feel like that was the crushing blow to them," Negrete said. "After that play it was a complete transformation."

The Trojans forced a safety on the ensuing Washington possession, then authored a seven-play, 51-yard touchdown drive to push the halftime lead to 23-3. The Huskies mustered just one first down during the rest of the first half.

But USC's special teams weren't done making an impact. On the opening kickoff of the second half, freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee received the kickoff and was seemingly stopped for a short gain. He wasn't stopped, however, and 88 yards later, the Trojans upped their lead to 30-3.

"I tried to go straight up the middle, but there was nothing there," Lee said. "I heard Robert [Woods] yelling for me to get to the outside. All the blocks set up for me. Robert and [Chris] Galippo made a couple great plays ahead of me."

It was the first kickoff return touchdown since Woods had a 97-yard return against Minnesota last year. It also could help jump start a kick-return squad that ranked No. 114 in the country heading into Saturday.

"It gave them a huge momentum boost," Washington safety Sean Parker said of Lee's return.

It was also a play that was close to not happening. Lee said he had a slight fever late this week but fought through it in order to play against the Huskies.

"Twenty-four hours ago this guy was in the health center getting IVs and could barely get out of bed," Kiffin said. "He continues to excel here, just like everywhere he has played. He's going to be one of the greats to play here for sure."

As the Trojans gather themselves for next weekend's game against the Oregon Ducks, they'll need to be firing on all cylinders. Saturday's game against Washington proved that USC's special teams is capable of providing a spark, no matter how unlikely the source.

Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at erik@wearesc.com.