Despite boasting a number of tailbacks heading into the season, USC has become a more pass-oriented team this season.
Through its first five games of the season, USC has attempted 189 passes versus 158 rushes. The Trojans have scored 14 receiving touchdowns, compared with four running touchdowns.
“We have been more heavily throwing the ball,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We cannot do that all year long. We will get exposed if we keep trying to do that.”
Much of the emphasis on the passing game has been because of the continued emergence of sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods.
“If you have a great tailback, you turn and give him the ball 25 times per game,” Kiffin said. “If you have a great receiver, the last thing we want to do is come out of the game and the guy only touches the ball four or five times. We try to find ways to get [Woods] the ball and keep feeding him.”
Opposing defenses have changed their formations to try to stop Woods, but he has still recorded 55 receptions for 747 yards and six touchdowns.
“That is why he is a No. 1 receiver,” Kiffin said. “He can do everything. He can beat you deep, and he can also take the short passes and make guys miss. He plays very physical for a guy that is not that big.”
Freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee has proved to be a reliable second option opposite Woods through five games. Lee, who claims to be able to dunk a basketball on an 11-foot hoop, has caught 21 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns using that jumping ability he developed on the basketball court.
“If someone is going to dunk on you, you have to time your jump,” Lee said. “I feel that I have great anticipation going up to get the ball.”
The USC coaching staff originally recruited Lee to compete in the secondary, but eventually yielded to Lee’s desire to play offense when recruiting him in high school.
“He would be lining up at Oregon probably if we told him he was going to be a [defensive back],” Kiffin said.
In anticipation of playing Thursday, the Trojans practiced on a Monday for the first time since school started. USC also practiced Sunday, normally an off day.
“We started the week early, so we have a head start on Cal,” junior safety T.J. McDonald said. “They were playing Oregon while we were preparing for them.”
Several players, including starters senior defensive tackle DaJohn Harris and senior running back Marc Tyler, had to leave practice early for class as a result of the unusual practice time.
The midweek game has many players scrambling to finish essays and take midterms early.
“I am not going to lie — it is tough,” Lee said. “But I am going to get it done. I am a student-athlete.”
With Memorial Stadium undergoing renovations, Thursday’s game will be played in AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.
While growing up in Fresno, Calif., McDonald rooted for the Giants. He played center field at Edison High School, and idolized Hall of Fame center fielder Willie Mays.
“[Mays] was before my time, but I watched [videos of] his catches and how he played the ball,” McDonald said. “Playing center field in baseball definitely helped my ball skills going up to catch the ball.”
Kiffin said freshman running back Amir Carlisle, freshman linebacker Lamar Dawson and redshirt sophomore cornerback Torin Harris will practice on Tuesday to see whether they will be able to play Thursday.