Woods is back on top of his game

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — If Saturday’s contest against Syracuse taught us anything, it’s this: Not even rain delays and thunderstorms can slow down USC’s dynamic passing attack.

Senior quarterback Matt Barkley failed to finish with his typical 300 passing yards, but he did manage to throw six touchdowns against the Orange. Three of those scoring tosses went to sophomore receiver Marqise Lee, while two went to junior receiver Robert Woods.

Though Lee might have stolen the spotlight in the season opener against Hawai’i with his 297 all-purpose yards, it was Woods’ show back east. And this, Trojan fans, is the best sign you could hope for.

I will say this: Robert Woods, I was a fool to think you would take a backseat to anybody.

Woods was unable to practice during the spring because of surgery on his injured right ankle, and even after he returned to practice, he sported a brace the size of a Mini Cooper.

Then the game against the Warriors happened. Woods was in single coverage the majority of the day, and though cornerbacks were holding him on a few occasions, he seemed just a little off. He wasn’t getting open. He was dropping passes. And strangest of all, he looked like a No. 2 receiver, with Lee being the star.

“He’ll be the best ever when it’s all said and done,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said of Lee afterward.

Was it finally Lee’s team? Some speculated that though Woods was the polished one, Lee was the explosive one who, as Kiffin suggested, could be the best receiver in school history. After the Hawai’i game, it hardly looked like an impossible prophecy.

But when Woods landed in Newark, N.J., and stepped onto the MetLife Stadium turf, the day belonged to him. Woods, donning his signature wry smile, could hardly be stopped.

He carved up the Syracuse defense in every  way imaginable: screens, deep sideline passes, slants. We saw the entire repertoire. But the main reason this apology is being written is because of his 76-yard run on a reverse in the fourth quarter.

He took the toss up the north sideline and was sprung forward by Marqise Lee’s block. Then, Woods showed why he is one of the best players in the country. He cut across the entire field, leaving several Syracuse players on the ground in the process, and raced down the south sideline before running out of gas near the end zone.

Those moves he made and the playmaking ability with the ball in his hands reminded us why Woods was a first-team All-American last season while breaking the Pac-12 mark for receptions in a single season.

It’s true that Lee is more of a burner than No. 2 is, and he is almost always open because of blinding speed. Even when Lee isn’t open, he’ll out-jump almost any cornerback in the country, as we saw on a pair of touchdown catches against Syracuse.

But Woods, polished as they come, and is a savvy veteran who just knows football. Sure-handed, he makes great adjustments on passes and runs to every open spot on the field. He just knows how to get open, no matter the circumstances.

Marqise Lee might be the future, but Woods is the present and, until proven otherwise, will continue to be the alpha dog of the USC receiving corps.

He isn’t always as fun to watch as Lee is, but when it comes down to it, there is no more reliable receiver in college football than Robert Woods. And for a team with national championship aspirations, a safety blanket for Barkley will be important in tight games.

In fact, if a game is close in the waning minutes, there is no other player I want catching passes other than Woods. That is no offense to Lee, a great player in his own right. But this is Woods’ receiving unit. He is the one who can get the ball when things look bleak and turn a 10-yard play into a long touchdown because of precision footwork — just like he did Saturday against the Orange.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is this: I’m sorry, Robert.

I shouldn’t have doubted you. You taught us something, and it’s a lesson we won’t soon forget: Though USC boasts a pair of top receivers in its arsenal, Woods’ proverbial torch has not been passed.

And after Saturday’s contest, it’s clear he doesn’t want to give that up anytime soon.


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