Is USC's Passing Game Too Centered On Robert Woods And Marqise Lee?
On face value, it seems ludicrous. The Trojans have the most decorated wideout in the country in Robert Woods, a consensus All-American last year and Biletnikoff Award finalist after setting a Pac-12 record with 111 receptions in 2011. Flanking him is Marqise Lee, a freshman All-American last season and the player whom head coach Lane Kiffin has predicted almost ad nauseam will leave USC as the best wide receiver in the school's history.
With the luxury of having two players that skilled, it makes sense that Kiffin would want to give them the ball as often as possible and, to an almost staggering degree, he has. Woods and Lee have accounted for a whopping 69.5 percent of ninth-ranked USC’s receiving yards so far this season, which is more than 21 percentage points higher than the 48.1 percent average of the top two receivers on each of the other top-10 BCS teams. Factor out Oregon State – the only top-10 school with a higher percentage than USC at 70.9 percent – and that deviation jumps to almost 25 percent.
Not that it has bogged the Trojans down thus far.
USC is 6-1 with five games remaining in the regular season and is coming off its best game of the year, a 50-6 shellacking of Colorado in which both Woods and Lee cracked the 100-yard mark, and Woods broke school records for career receptions as well as touchdown catches in a game. Prior to that were back-to-back double-digit road wins against Washington and Utah, regarded as two of the loudest venues in the conference.
If the Trojans really are getting crushed under the weight of its star duo, the results certainly don’t bear that out.
"What matters is you get the best players on your team the ball," said wide receivers coach Tee Martin. "It doesn't matter who or what number [of catches] they have. And those guys have certainly earned the touches they get... they earned that right to be respected that way."
But USC's passing game has sputtered at times, with the Trojans only mustering 262.4 yards per game through the air, some 30 less than last year’s average of 294.2. It's an underwhelming figure for a group lauded as the best in the country between the receivers and Matt Barkley, and has plenty of observers scratching their heads as to why. Which, increasingly often, shifts the topic back to that seemingly ridiculous query of whether it is really possible to have too much of Woods and Lee.
A look at the numbers reveals a few warning signs, starting with USC's reliance – or relative lack thereof – on Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, its last pair of All-American wideouts.
It was Jarrett and Smith who comprised the backbone of the passing game from 2004 through 2006, a span that included two national championship appearances, one national title win and one Rose Bowl win; while the passing attack rested largely on their shoulders, it wasn’t nearly dependent on them as these Trojans are on Woods and Lee.
To wit, in 2004, the year USC last won the national championship, Jarrett and Smith accrued just 42.7 percent of the Trojans' receiving yards. The following year, which culminated in a national championship game-loss to Texas, that number was 53.6 percent. Even in 2006, when USC was more dependent than ever on the wideouts after replacing a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, Jarrett and Smith still only produced 61.2 percent of USC's receiving yards, eight percent less than Woods and Lee's current total.
Then there is this: including USC's title-winning team in 2004, the top two pass catchers on the last eight college football national champions have averaged just 43.3 percent of its team’s receiving yards.
There are, however, mitigating factors.
While the numbers speak for themselves relative to current teams and past national champions, Woods and Lee represent the outlier in terms of talent. ESPN NFL Draft expert Todd McShay currently has Woods projected as the second-best receiver and the 20th overall player available in April's draft )should he make himself eligible). Lee, meanwhile, is ineligible to declare for the draft as a sophomore but McShay speculated in a recent column that if he were available in this year’s player pool, he’d go even higher than Woods – possibly so high as the top overall receiver drafted and a top-10 pick.
To put things in perspective, among those eight national championship teams, just two receivers total were selected in the first round – Florida's Percy Harvin in 2009 and Alabama’s Julio Jones in 2011.
What's to say, then, that other schools wouldn't do the exact same thing if they had Woods' and Lee's talents at their disposal? This is, after all, the tandem that Stanford coach David Shaw – who, lest we forget, is 2-0 against the Trojans in his young head coaching career – not only labeled the pair of receivers he’s ever seen in college football, but that it’s "not even close."
Meanwhile, although USC's overall passing yardage is down from 2011, it bears mentioning that last year's Trojans, who finished sixth in the AP Poll, didn’t peak until the second half of the season. Those gaudy season-ending numbers were fueled by a spike resulting in a net gain of 5.8 points and its offensive yardage by 26 yards per game over their midseason numbers.
Woods and Lee's share of the passing yards at the end of the year? 68.9 percent, or less than one percentile of difference from this year's total.
It probably wouldn’t surprise you, then, to hear that the Trojans aren't losing much sleep over just how much Woods or Lee or anybody, for that matter, gets the ball. To them, the 'who' is irrelevant; it’s the 'what' that matters.
"It's about the best plays in the situation versus the down and distance and what defense is doing," declared Kiffin. "It's not about [finding] a third guy, or a fourth guy."
"It doesn’t matter who touches it – it can really depend on the situation," echoed Woods. "Every guy on this offense is capable of making that big play. It doesn't really matter who's going to get the ball in crunch time because we're relying on that guy to make that play."
Of course, just because a player is capable of making those plays doesn't entail that the opportunity will come their way; redshirt junior De'Von Flournoy, for example, has been in the program for four years and just caught the first pass of his career on Saturday. But USC's coaching staff has a plan for the names beyond Woods and Lee, one that may not involve as many touches but nevertheless make them just as crucial.
"One of my favorite sayings to the guys is "catch the ball thrown to you' and don't worry about it," said offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu. "Don't worry about how many balls come your way.
"Just catch the ones thrown to you and it’s amazing the production that’ll happen."
That's the kind of good thing the Trojans can never get enough of.