Marqise Lee's big day 16 catches for 345 yards and two touchdowns was… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
TUCSON, Ariz. — Marqise Lee dropped to the desert floor as if deliriously parched, covering his head with his hands and kicking his legs.
He eventually stood up and walked slowly across the Arizona Stadium field with tears steaming down his cheeks. A USC flunky clumsily shoved a baseball cap in front of Lee's face in an attempt to shield his pain, but nothing could mask the truth about this brilliant receiver and his troubled program.
Their talent is unlimited, but their season has been a waste. Their potential is arguably the best in the country, yet their results have been indisputably the most disappointing in recent memory.
This Trojans are great players, yet the Trojans are one messy team, witness Saturday's 39-36 defeat to Arizona that erased them from the national championship picture while stripping them of all benefit of the doubt.
This isn't working. The NFL offense isn't working. The wise old coordinator's defense isn't working.
More than anything, Lane Kiffin isn't working. At some point, the learning curve for the young coach has to start consistently trending upward. In this most important of his three seasons here, it has flatlined.
Are we sure he didn't out-think himself Saturday by ordering his players to trade jersey numbers with, I don't know, Colorado?
In the eighth game of an autumn still in search of a defining moment, Kiffin's Trojans were once again defined only by disorganization, a lack of discipline, and decisions that could just be called dumb.
In being outscored 26-0 in the middle of a game against a rebuilding program just trying to stay close, USC again showed that nobody beats these Trojans like themselves.
"We didn't win, and that's why I was upset," said Lee.
On a day that should have been a celebration of a kid who might be the best college football player in the country, Lee caught a conference-record 345 yards worth of passes while watching the Trojans drop everything else.
They dropped the football with three lost fumbles, they dropped any sense of focus with 117 yards worth of penalties, and Matt Barkley dropped his precision with two passes for interceptions.
"I was surprised when we kept screwing up," said Kiffin, who might have been the only one. "I'm open to all suggestions, I've tried it all."
The biggest drop of all occurred shortly after Lee streaked across the field on a 44-yard touchdown pass to give the Trojans a 28-13 lead early in the third quarter, when Kiffin inexplicably dropped his visor-covered head into a misguided play card.
In their next three possessions, the Trojans didn't throw to Lee once. Not once. During that time, they gained 29 total yards with drives ending in two punts and fumble. Also during that time, not coincidentally, the re-energized Wildcats scored twice to close the gap to two points.
When Lee finally touched the ball again at the start of the fourth quarter, it was on a completely silly fourth-down reverse that gained one yard when two yards were needed. Yes, of course, Arizona took the lead on the next possession.
Lee had missed the start of the second half because he was in the locker room receiving intravenous fluids for exhaustion, but he was well enough for that third-quarter score, and he said he felt fine. As in the recent win in Washington, the only person who could stop this kid who eventually gained 469 total yards was his coach.
Said Kiffin: "They changed a little bit in the third quarter, [Lee] probably set a first-half world record, so they're going to do something."
Said Lee: "They changed their defense, but knowing what kind of coaches we have, I knew eventually they will open up and change our plays too."
Eventually? Trojan fans were waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
Folks were waiting for Kiffin's father, Monte, to change the defense to stop the seven consecutive Arizona runs when the Wildcats were killing the clock late with a backup quarterback who wouldn't have passed if his scholarship depended on it.
Folks were also waiting for Barkley to pull out at least a tie when their high-powered offense took over at their 13-yard line with 55 seconds remaining and no timeouts.
Yet Kiffin called a series of time-consuming midfield passes while refusing to order Barkley to spike the ball even once to stop the clock. The drive ended not in a makable field-goal attempt — a realistic goal — but a Hail Mary pass that was batted away as Lee crumpled to the ground.
Kiffin never really explained why he didn't spike the ball, and Barkley didn't try.
"I don't make those decisions on the field,'' Barkley said.
Lee actually thought he could have caught that final flailing pass. Count him among the dwindling few who still believe in a 6-2 team that is no lock to win any of its four remaining games, beginning with powerful Oregon next week.
"Until the end of the game, I was focused and thought we were going to pull it out," he said brightly. "We are 'SC!"