LOS ANGELES – It’s rivalry week in Los Angeles. No. 17 UCLA hosts No. 18 USC on Saturday at noon at the Rose Bowl with a Pac-12 South championship and a trip to the conference title game on the line.
This is without question one of the most significant games this rivalry has seen in nearly two decades. As USC hopes to keep their Rose Bowl chances alive, many Trojan fans want to know where is Robert Woods?
The shift to Marqise Lee as the primary receiver for USC has been progressive throughout the season, but last Saturday in the win over Arizona State, the effect on Woods reached an all-time low.
Woods finished the game with just two receptions for negative three yards – a career low.
It prompted the debut of the Twitter handle @passWoodsball, which Woods classified as “funny.”
The hash tag “freerobertwoods” has been circulating around the social media network as well during the past couple of weeks.
In one of the biggest mysteries the 2012 college football season has seen, balls have stopped going in the direction of No. 2. If you didn’t know any better, you would liken it to Michael Jordan being frozen out of the 1985 NBA All-Star Game.
While that may be a stretch, Woods’ lack of production is still perplexing nonetheless. Woods set the conference record for most receptions in a single season last year without the luxury of a conference championship or a bowl game. He’s also the school’s all-time leader in receptions. Matt Barkley contends he doesn’t pick who he’s going to throw the ball to, he just makes his read and lets it fly. Head coach Lane Kiffin has admitted they have and will “force” the ball to Lee.
“If you got somebody that people can’t stop, you got to keep getting him the ball,” Kiffin said. “If we’re sitting here and he touches the ball three times in a game, I would imagine that would be the first question that you guys would ask is ‘What are you doing?’ ‘How do you not get that guy the ball?'”
Following the win over Arizona State, Kiffin said he could feel Woods’ frustration because of his lack of touches.
“He’s one of the best we’ve ever had here but at the same time you’re human,” Kiffin said. “You want the ball. You play receiver, you want the ball. It was nothing negative. From our relationship, I could feel him. I think he was a little bit down.”
Kiffin talked to Woods during the game to try to calm him down.
“He pulled me over (and said) ‘I’m trying to get you the ball on this play,’ but unfortunately things happen. One was an interception and one, I think, was an overthrow,” Woods said.
Lee has commended his former high school teammate for his willingness to allow him to shine.
“He knows defenses going to always play to him and always going to go to his side,” Lee said. “He’s just going to try to do whatever he (can) do to get open so they can take all the focus on him so that I can get open.
“He gives up himself for me, basically. I appreciate that. I don’t think it bothers him at all.”
Kiffin says the coverages opposing defenses have played against Woods have dictated the lack of balls thrown in his direction. Teams have primarily played their safeties deeper and wider against the Trojans this season, Kiffin says, including Arizona State last Saturday.
“They were, for the most part, really deep and over the top of the receivers and that’s what has happened to Robert a lot,” Kiffin said.
Woods has been peppered with questions all season long about Lee in conjunction with his lack of touches. He’s smiled, commended Lee, and displayed the type of professionalism in the face of cameras and reporters that Cam Newton could use a dose of on Sundays following losses. It’s quite unusual for wide receivers, who often carry the reputation of being divas, feel like they’re open on every play and have the title of Keyshawn Johnson’s infamous book on the tip of their tongues.
With the way he’s handled this situation, Woods has almost become the anti-wide receiver.
“I’m just out there trying to play receiver and fortunate to play with Marqise,” Woods said. “He’s a great receiver and he’s going to have great numbers. I wish that I was making more plays, of course, but other than that, I’m proud of Marqise making those plays.”
Touted as an exceptional route runner and having a high football IQ, one would think Woods would have the propensity to get himself open on just about any play.
Yet when asked why Woods isn’t getting the ball more, Kiffin has nothing.
“That’s a good question,” Kiffin said. “I don’t have the answer.”