With a key matchup against No. 18 Arizona on the road this weekend, the Trojans will need all their weapons to be sharp to avenge last season’s loss.
That includes freshman receiver Robert Woods.
After starting off the year at a blistering rate — returning a 97-yard kick for a touchdown to put the Trojans up for good against Minnesota, and recording 19 catches for 340 yards and five touchdowns in a two-game span against Stanford and California — the freshman star has fallen off the radar.
He did have a team-high seven catches for 59 yards against Oregon, but no touchdowns. He only recorded three catches for 17 yards last week against Arizona State because he wasn’t at full strength, as he had to be taken to the hospital because of vomiting and back pain Thursday.
With Woods limited, the Sun Devils were able to double-team senior receiver Ronald Johnson, and the offense struggled to find a rhythm.
“You could feel it out there,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “When both of those guys are healthy, you feel that speed presence out there and aggressiveness and there’s deeper safeties. If one of them is banged up or one of them is out, like Robert was in that game, you can feel that we have some really good receivers but [Robert and Johnson] are really fast so I can definitely feel when one’s not there.”
Woods was limited in practice Tuesday and said he hasn’t been sick since Friday, but he should be close to full strength this weekend.
“I feel all right,” Woods said. “A little pain here and there, but I feel like I could go. It was coach’s decision to sit me out [Tuesday]. ”
Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, who missed a wide-open Woods on a deep ball on the first series of the Arizona State game, one of the few times that game Woods looked like his former self, said his absence affects the passing game.
“He being out, you could see the effects of it,” Barkley said. “He’s still getting there, still trying to get back to 100 percent. But he’s playing his butt off still. There’s no doubt about his effort. But I definitely missed him out there.”
Freshman running back Dillon Baxter got the first start of his career Saturday with mixed results. He rushed a team-high 17 times but mustered only 52 yards and had four catches for 26 yards.
“The running was pretty good,” Baxter said. “There was a couple backside plays I could’ve got. But it was my first time and everything. I think I got in the groove pretty good for my first time.”
Kiffin said he was impressed that in Baxter’s 17 carries he didn’t have one negative run. One area Baxter and Kiffin both see a need for improvement, however, is Baxter’s pass protection. Baxter missed a block on a play-action pass in the second quarter that caused Barkley to run out of the pocket and throw an interception in the end zone.
“I’m disappointed in the pass protection on the play that ended up being the interception because that’s the exact same protection he missed at home versus Virginia,” Kiffin said. “Same protection, same guy and he missed him, and we threw an interception on that one because [Barkley] rushed it.”
As for Baxter’s counterpart, junior running back Marc Tyler said he felt fine Tuesday after spraining his ankle in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game and should practice this week.