Has Marqise Lee gone from Heisman Trophy candidate to just another player? That's exactly what has happened under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, and the Trojans seem to be all the better for it.
"You know what is kind of cool? Marqise is just another teammate now," Orgeron told the "College Football 24/7" Podcast. "And although he is a great player, we treat him just as another teammate, and we have guys all around him making plays. Obviously, he is a tremendous player, but now he has molded into a great team player, and we use him just like the other guys."
Former head coach and offensive playcaller Lane Kiffin emphasized getting the ball to Lee, but not necessarily in the right ways. Lee caught 30 passes for 385 yards and one touchdown in the five games before Kiffin was unceremoniously fired, but that included a heavy diet of screens and other plays that were easily defended.
Offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who is now directing the offense, has put a greater emphasis on the run, all but abandoned the screen game, allowed Lee and sophomore Nelson Agholor to get vertical, and allowed more players to get involved.
After playing two of the first 12 quarters after Orgeron took over, Lee had 105 yards on five receptions with a 71-yard touchdown on USC's first play at Oregon State and just one catch for 13 yards in a demolition of California. But quarterback Cody Kessler completed 31 of 38 passes for 417 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in those games, clearly benefitting from an approach not dependent on getting the ball to Lee at all costs.
But even the threat of Lee, who was hampered by shoulder and knee injuries for much of the season, nearing a return to full strength has been enough to open things up and allow Kessler to take advantage of favorable coverages Kiffin refused to exploit.
"You take the top two fastest guys off of every team, you're not going to have the same production," Stanford head coach David Shaw said, referring to Lee and Nelson Agholor's injuries.
Against the powerful Cardinal defense, the less-is-more approach with Lee could be just as valuable, if those handful of touches allow him to create explosive plays.
Utah, however, had a 51-yard touchdown pass and a 35-yard completion to set up another touchdown in its 27-21 upset win over Stanford.
USC will need to get a handful of significant gains from Lee and Agholor to get the same result, which will put stress on Stanford safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards to support the corners.
"We talk about not giving up the big play," Shaw said. "We talk about being in great position. We talk about not getting our eyes in the backfield and being enamored with what is going on behind the line of scrimmage, in particular with this week when you have got two unbelievable receivers that can change games so you have to be cautious of them. Those guys understand that extremely well."
Lee might be one of the guys to Orgeron, but will probably have to be much more than that this week.