USC tailback Marc Tyler scores on a six-yard run in the first quarter against… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
He sprinted into the end zone, this most mouthy and controversial of USC football players, and an amazing thing happened.
Marc Tyler didn't glare with glazed-over eyes. He didn't slur something about Trojans being paid. There were no sexual innuendoes or unseemly boasts.
Marc Tyler simply turned and walked into the waiting arms of his teammates, a family that had punished and was now embracing, welcoming him to the 2011 season and hopefully maturity.
"I need to grow up," he said later.
He does, and he did, at least for a few hours Saturday, when redemption came to Marc Tyler one cleat step at a time.
Returning to the field for the first time since being suspended last summer for being a jerk, the Trojans running back was all juke, scoring once, gaining 113 yards, and helping carry USC to a 22-14 win over annoyingly feisty Utah.
The ending was nuts, with USC attempting to give away a victory for a second consecutive week, handing the Utes bad turnovers and dumb penalties until finally taking it all back on the game's final play when offensive tackle Matt Kalil blocked a tying field-goal attempt.
But the beginning was perhaps just as compelling, when, before the Trojans stepped into the Coliseum, Coach Lane Kiffin put his arms around Tyler in the tunnel.
Said Kiffin: "I gave him a hug and told him how proud I was of him."
Said Tyler: "I've always been the sarcastic and funny one, but I need to grow up. I mean, I'm 23."
Indeed, the kid defense didn't work in July, when Tyler was suspended for the first game of the season for a string of incidents that culminated in a nationally embarrassing interview with the gossip website TMZ.com.
While leaving a bar, a TMZ.com camera operator asked Tyler some questions about USC. Instead of walking away, he insisted on standing still and answering them oddly and profanely with an arrogance that the Trojans have been trying to escape.
The disturbing video became only the latest in a string of incidents involving Tyler and bars and bad behavior. He has allegedly spat on a female while drunk, and was accused of inappropriately touching another female near a campus bar.
Even though Tyler was their best running back, and even though he had committed no crime, he was immediately bounced with words that Kiffin did not mince.
"He did not live up to the high standard that has been set for representing this university," Kiffin said at the time. "What Marc did, you just cannot do that here."
Kudos to Kiffin and Pat Haden, the Trojans' athletic director, for defending the school's integrity in an era where it seems great players are rarely benched for anything less than jail time.
Kudos to Tyler for not following through on a threat he made immediately after being suspended — he says now he was going to quit, but didn't.
"I didn't want them to deal with what I'm putting them through," he said of his teammates. "But coach Polamalu [Kennedy Polamalu, offensive coordinator] wanted me to stick it out and be a man about it."
Obviously, the role models in college athletics are the ones who endure the daily grind without ever causing trouble in the first place. But give Tyler credit for quietly carrying the weight of a suspension that basically shunned him from the team, keeping him out of so many practices that he said Saturday's first hit made him dizzy.
"I felt like I owed [the Trojans] and the fans this,'' Tyler said
Payback was fierce. Tyler was not on the field at the start of either of the Trojans' first two possessions, but midway through the first quarter he officially showed up when he caught a screen pass from Matt Barkley and spun through harm for a 19-yard gain that eventually set up an Andre Heidari field goal. Several minutes later, he finished a short drive with that six-yard touchdown run through a hole as wide as his smile.
For the rest of the game, he ate up the sort of desperate, dirty yards that should give Barkley and Robert Woods the space to dazzle. It figures that on Tyler's best run, you couldn't even see him, as he carried Utah's 283-pound tackle Tevita Finau five yards down the field on a cluttered 14-yard gain.
"You saw all the runs where he got hit and kept going," Barkley said. "He's a good back for us and I'm glad we have him back."
After hugging his teammates during his touchdown celebration, Marc Tyler finally raised one hand. But it was to point to the sky, not to himself. For the first game of the rest of his life, it's a start.