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Robert Woods is the bright spot in the darkness of USC's probation-scarred season

BILL PLASCHKE

The freshman receiver stars again in Trojans' 48-14 rout of Cal, and with 19 catches, 340 yards and five touchdowns in the last two games, he gives USC fans something to get excited about in a season when bowl games and national titles are off the table.

October 16, 2010|Bill Plaschke
  • Trojans receiver Robert Woods, who finished with seven catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns, has his helmet knocked off by California defensive back Marc Anthony after a 41-yard gain in the third quarter Saturday.
Trojans receiver Robert Woods, who finished with seven catches for 116… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The Coliseum was dead. The Cal Bears were dregs. The USC season plowed past its halfway point Saturday finally in the throes of a probation hangover that left one thinking about the final six games and wondering, why?

Then lucky little 13 showed up again, helmet flying, pads quaking, scoreboard blinking.

Robert Woods is why.

Robert Woods is one reason the rest of this USC season matters, the next great Trojans playmaker straightening out those weary shrugs and jolting those sad smiles.

No bowl game? Then how about a freshman receiver who twists defenders into concentric circles, five touchdowns in two games, including two in Saturday's 48-14 pounding of California?

"That was fun,'' he said, the wonder stretching his 18-year-old smile.

No national championship? Then how about a kid receiver who has already danced his way into the prime-time highlights, including one Saturday in which he held on to the ball despite having his helmet knocked off?

"That's never happened to me before," he said. "I didn't know I had lost the helmet. I just knew I had a headache. That was weird."

No BCS? Then how about a kid receiver who is WOW?

Not that you would ever catch him acting like it, as Woods generally hands the ball to the referees and looks for someone to hug.

"It's about God, who can take it all away from you at any time," he said, pausing. "Plus, Coach Kiffin doesn't allow it."

Putting your head coach in the same sentence as the Almighty? Yeah, the kid's also smart, and he has already proved his coaches to be a little dumb, witness two weeks ago.

In the loss to Washington, Woods had zero catches and was a target just once. In two games since then, he has 19 catches for 340 yards and five touchdowns.

On a day when the Trojans' defense finally halted a season-long tide of criticism by holding Cal's pro-style offense to 245 yards, Woods still stole the show.

"We didn't do a very good job getting him the ball" earlier in the season, Coach Lane Kiffin admitted. "He's Stevie Smith, but he's faster."

The former high school track star is faster than the former USC great, not only receiving but returning kicks — his 97-yard touchdown return against Minnesota was the longest by a Trojan in a dozen years. He's so much quicker, coaches have also started working him out at cornerback, and anybody else would be worried that playing both ways might hurt his NFL future as a receiver.

"I'm fine with it," Woods said. "I want to do it."

Of course he is, fine and dandy, a grounded Gardena Serra High kid who wears nothing more exotic than a green watch. In a receiving world dominated by the likes of Ochocinco and T.O., even his nickname screams vanilla.

R-Wood? RoWo? Nah, just "Woody."

"That's what they call my father," he said.

The only ornament the kid displays is his heart on his sleeve. Before every game, he writes a large "O" in magic marker on each of his white wrist wraps. The letter is for Olivia, his sister who three years ago died of cancer at age 17.

"She's watching over me," he said.

He looks down at his wrists before and after every play, and sometime he listens.

"When she was sitting in the stands at my high school game, even though everyone was shouting, sometimes her voice was the only one I heard," he recalled.

She would shout, "Let's go, Robert!" The words echoed from thousands of others in the Coliseum on Saturday when Woods made an impact on seemingly every early drive.

On the first series, he made a tightrope 16-yard touchdown grab at the side of the end zone. On the second series, he ran right for nine yards.

"I would say there is a rhythm there, yeah," he said.

It sure looked like it again on the third series, when Woods began a touchdown drive by burning through 12 yards on a screen pass. On the fourth series, he caught a 17-yard pass over the middle to set up another touchdown.

"He always seems to find that open window," said quarterback Matt Barkley.

On the fifth series, he caught his second touchdown pass, nine yards, after which he was hammered, yet he still held the ball. On the sixth series, he made a play as important as any of them, and he didn't catch a pass.

As a Barkley throw sailed toward Cal defender Steve Williams, Woods jumped in and broke up the potential interception. It was a veteran move performed with the simple motivation of a kid.

"That's what Coach tells us to do," he said.

Can I pause here to say that Cal was the most unprepared visiting team I have seen in the Coliseum in years? Their sorry afternoon included dropped passes, blocking breakdowns, uncovered receivers, and an attitude that became clear when they literally walked off most of the Coliseum at halftime while trailing 42-0.

This makes it tough to judge the true state of the Trojans entering their Oct. 30 showdown here against Oregon, so I have just one question:

Will Robert Woods be there? Good.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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