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USC FOOTBALL

Trojans' wide receivers haven't been catching the wave

While the rest of USC's offense has rounded into form and built momentum, the receiving corps has conspicuously failed to pull its weight. The return of Ronald Johnson this week could help.

October 13, 2009|Gary Klein

USC quarterback Matt Barkley has started to play like a veteran.

The Trojans' offensive line remains solid as expected and the rushing attack appears to be clicking with a reconfigured 1-2 tailback punch.

So as sixth-ranked USC prepares for Saturday's game at No. 25 Notre Dame, only one position group on offense appears to be lagging:

The receivers.

"We need to play a lot better," redshirt freshman Brice Butler said. "We haven't been making plays the whole season."

Butler might be a tad overcritical, but there is no denying the lack of production.

While junior Damian Williams has a team-leading 24 catches, no other wide receiver has caught as many passes as fullback Stanley Havili, tailback Joe McKnight or tight end Anthony McCoy.

David Ausberry has eight receptions, Butler five and Travon Patterson one.

"Nobody has really taken over," Coach Pete Carroll said. "We've just kind of spread the ball throughout the other guys besides Damian."

Some coaches and players say the situation stems from the absence of returning starter Ronald Johnson, who was sidelined the first five games because of a broken collarbone.

Others cite conservative play-calling designed to protect a freshman quarterback from taking too many risks that could result in mistakes.

The bottom line: USC has refrained from relying heavily upon its receivers.

"We just haven't pushed the ball outside much," Carroll said. "We haven't asked a lot of them."

That could change Saturday when the Trojans face a Notre Dame defense that has given up 263.6 yards passing per game. The Fighting Irish rank 110th among the 120 major college teams.

Will USC's receiving corps be up to the task if called upon?

That appeared to be a nonissue when players reported for training camp in August.

Patrick Turner had moved on to the NFL and Vidal Hazelton transferred to Cincinnati, but the group still featured Williams and the speedy Johnson, who combined for 91 receptions and 17 touchdowns in 2008.

But during the Trojans' final preseason scrimmage, two defensive backs sandwiched Johnson after a catch. The junior was in a sling for several weeks and returned to practice in a limited role only last week.

Johnson, who averaged a team-best 17.3 yards a catch last season, has been cleared for contact this week and is expected to play against the Irish.

"Just the fact people know what he's capable of, that makes defenses respect it," Williams said. "It definitely helps because they can't just home in on me."

Said Johnson: "I feel I bring the deep threat."

The focus of USC's offense through the first half of the season has been the development of Barkley.

By keeping routes short and calling for passes to running backs and tight ends, coaches limited mistakes. But they also limited opportunities for wide receivers.

That has changed some in the last two games as Barkley has been allowed to throw deeper. Against Washington State, he completed touchdown passes to Butler and Williams on consecutive possessions -- the only scoring throws to wide receivers this season.

Barkley has completed 59% of his passes, with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

"I've improved weekly with them, just our chemistry and knowing how they run their routes," Barkley said of the receivers. "It's been great in how they were kind of patient with me. I think they've made my job a lot easier."

USC receivers enter the Notre Dame game coming off perhaps their best overall performance of the season in a 30-3 win over California on Oct. 3.

Williams was the star, catching eight passes for 101 yards. But Ausberry, who has been starting in Johnson's place, made a crucial catch on a fourth-and-one play in the second quarter.

"They all have a role, and you just hope when they do get a chance they seize the opportunity -- and he did," receivers coach John Morton said.

With an open date last week, USC spent practices trying to integrate freshman De'Von Flournoy, who could provide a playmaking threat for a group that has accounted for only two touchdowns.

But the onus, according to Butler, is on the more experienced receivers.

"We need to make more plays and become that dynamic group to where everybody can be like, 'USC receivers? They're the guys. Those guys are good,' " Butler said. "We have to go out and perform well against Notre Dame."

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gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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