It didn't take long for wide receiver Marqise Lee to remind everyone how good he can be, catching a 71-yard touchdown on USC's first play from scrimmage that sparked a 31-14 win at Oregon State on Friday night.
Running a post route out of a bunch formation, Lee was wide open and strolled into the end zone after the lone Beavers safety in coverage got caught up in traffic. It was a play that Lee could have made in his sleep the last two seasons, but was just his second touchdown reception in a frustrating junior campaign that has been marred by injuries, inconsistent play and the atrocious playcalling of former head coach Lane Kiffin.
Lee, who missed the second half at Notre Dame and last week's win over Utah after aggravating a knee injury against the Fighting Irish, finished with five receptions for 105 yards. Conditioning was clearly an issue, as Lee's snaps were carefully managed. But he showed his trademark explosiveness on a nifty spin move to evade a defender for a 23-yard gain, the player that was expected to push for the Heisman Trophy.
Combined with another strong performance from the USC defense and running backs Silas Redd (22 carries for 140 rushing yards) and Javorius "Buck" Allen (16 carries for 133 yards and three touchdowns), the Trojans secured their third consecutive conference win under interim head coach Ed Orgeron. For a team that looked to be facing an uphill battle to get bowl eligible when Kiffin was fired -- USC needs seven wins to do so because it is playing a 13-game regular season after opening at Hawaii -- the turnaround under Orgeron has been remarkable.
Despite being limited by injuries up and down the roster, USC played arguably its best game of the season. Quarterback Cody Kessler was 17-of-21 passing for 247 yards and one touchdown, though he did throw an interception that safety Ryan Murphy returned 41 yards for a touchdown, and directed an offense that was 7 of 14 on third down.
The relentless USC front frustrated OSU quarterback Sean Mannion into his worst performance of the season, with 277 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, two of which came inside the red zone. Mannion, who was sacked twice by outside linebacker Devon Kennard, had thrown 30 touchdowns against just three interceptions in his first eight games.
Wide receiver Brandin Cooks caught six balls for 88 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 40 yards on two carries, but was never able to take over the game as he had during OSU's six-game winning streak.
USC was more active and engaged from the start, which has been the trademark since Orgeron took over the program, securing its first win in Corvallis, Ore. since 2004.
While it seems like a long shot that Orgeron would get the top job on a permanent basis or Lee, almost universally regarded as the top receiver in college football, would return for his senior season, USC saw a tantalizing glimpse of what each can do.