For USC quarterback Matt Barkley, the moment came against Arizona. The Trojans were playing in a game that would result in their second loss in seven weeks, a stunning setback for a team that entered the year ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. But that's not what stuck with Barkley. With 10:48 remaining in the third quarter and the Trojans clinging to a 21-13 lead, Barkley threw a 15-yard strike to sophomore receiver Marqise Lee. Lee made the catch near the left hash and cut back toward the middle of the field.
That's when Barkley, like the other 47,000 people in attendance, turned into a spectator. He watched as Lee sprinted past one defender, then raced past five more, on his way to a 44-yard score. Barkley remembers thinking one thing: Wow.
"It was just a slant route, second window, that I hit him in that he took for a touchdown," said Barkley. "But his speed, his breakaway speed through the safeties and past the linebackers, really made a statement as to what a lethal playmaker he is."
Lee made the type of play that NFL scouts are salivating over and USC fans have come to expect. He offered a glimpse into why he's the most dangerous wideout in the nation, and, quite possibly, the best player in the nation overall. During a season in which the Trojans have been plagued by mishaps, Lee has put together a campaign for the ages.
"My general goal was to come out and compete and just do better than I did last year," said Lee, who collected 1,143 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman. "That was my main focus."
There's no getting around the fact that it's been a disappointing 2012 at USC. Dreams of a national title have been dashed. Talk of a return to glory has been silenced. A season that was supposed to be full of program-lifting victories and giddy BCS speculation has been marred by controversial jersey switches and deflated balls. Little has gone according to plan.
But amid the chaos, Lee has blossomed into one of the sport's brightest young stars. And he's having a season that could go down as one of the all-time best. Through 10 games, he's racked up 1,447 receiving yards, 677 kick return yards, 110 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns. Even if the Trojans play just 13 games (a loss to UCLA this Saturday would preclude them from the Pac-12 title game), he's on pace to finish with 2,904 all-purpose yards, which would be the most of any player from a Big Six conference in the entire BCS era.
By comparison, when former Trojans star Reggie Bush won his now vacated Heisman in 2005, he finished with 2,890 all-purpose yards.
"It could be a sign of the times just in how offenses are throwing the ball more or scoring more points," said Barkley, "but I think the majority of all that credit does go to Marqise. ... I trust that if I'm gonna throw that ball to him that he's gonna come down with it. He deserves all that credit that he's getting."
Lee's impact is most evident when examining the production of USC junior receiver Robert Woods, a first-team All-America in 2011. Woods broke a Pac-12 record with 111 receptions last season and is arguably the second most gifted wideout in the country. Yet after finishing last Saturday's game with two catches for negative-three yards, Woods has gone largely overlooked.
Lee is that good. On an offense full of first-round talent, he's become the unquestioned headliner, a do-it-all dynamo who's overtaken even golden boy Barkley as the Trojans' leading Heisman candidate.
"He's phenomenal," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez told reporters after the Wildcats' 39-36 upset victory over the Trojans, a game in which Lee amassed a league-record 345 receiving yards on 16 catches. "It seemed like he was at a different speed, didn't he? It looked like we had angles, and he was out-running angles."
Lee makes things look easy on the field, but his journey to this point was incredibly difficult. Both of his parents are deaf. His two half-brothers were involved in gang activity, one now dead and the other imprisoned on a count of attempted murder. Lee eventually moved from a foster home into the house of a friend, Steven Hester, and transferred from Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif., to Junipero Serra High in Gardena.
Lee is understandably soft-spoken about his upbringing, saying only that's it's shaped him into the man he is today.
"Growing up in a hard life and the struggles, your whole mindset is you don't wanna struggle anymore," said Lee. "You actually wanna do something with your life and make something possible. All the stuff you went through back then, that's the motivation. It prepares you to work and work hard and give it your all so at the end of the day you're most likely to succeed."
It also taught him to brush off the little things that might overwhelm lesser players. For example, prior to last week's game against Arizona State, Lee suffered an unexpected allergic reaction. His face puffed up and his eyes nearly swelled shut. But instead of panicking, he dealt with it. He then proceeded to haul in 10 catches for 161 yards and a touchdown and added six carries for 66 yards. He made an 80-yard scoring grab with just more than a minute left in the first quarter, his sixth touchdown of 55 yards or longer on the season.
"I told [coach Lane] Kiffin about the allergic reaction, so they just put ice bags over my face so the swelling could go down a little bit," Lee said. "They gave me some medicine and I was good to go."
Lee needs to be good to go heading into this Saturday's showdown with UCLA, as USC's season is on the line. In addition to playing for Los Angeles bragging rights, the Bruins and Trojans will face off for Pac-12 South supremacy and a likely date with Oregon in the title game with a potential Rose Bowl berth at stake. The importance of the contest isn't lost in the locker room.
"We're in a unique situation because we do determine our own destiny," said Barkley. "We win this week versus UCLA and we're in the Pac-12 championship. The week after that, it's a game against possibly the No. 2 team in the country [Notre Dame]. If we make that upset, we play the No. 1 team in the country in Oregon. Our goal now is to win out and to play in the Rose Bowl. That might sound lofty considering who we are playing the rest of the year, but I think that's how you gotta look at it and make the most out of the rest of this year."
For Lee, it's simpler. In a season gone awry, he's just looking for the next chance to make a stadium full of spectators forget USC's disappointments and focus on one mesmerizing talent, a player who in a matter of seconds can elicit gasps from the stands and the backfield. He's looking for the next chance to make people go: Wow.