SEATTLE – Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox nods at all listed virtues that make USC wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods so potent.
Are they the best in the country? “That’s probably fair to say.”
When it comes to Lee and Woods, the list of qualifications to be dubbed the best collegiate receiving combo is long, leaving a large task in front of Washington when it deals with them at 4 p.m. Saturday at what’s expected to be a rain-soaked CenturyLink Field.
Woods, a junior, caught 111 passes and 15 touchdowns last season. Lee lollygagged behind with a mere 73 receptions for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman.
They’ve swapped spots this year. Lee is third in the country in receptions with 52. He’s second in catches per game and tied for fourth in touchdowns with seven. He leads the Pacific-12 Conference in each category – along with all-purpose yards as he also returns kicks.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Lee has touchdown receptions of 83 and 75 yards this season. He has also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score. He’s touted as a good blocker. He also sews the footballs together, molds the kicking tees and leads the band. The last sentence may not be true, but you get the point.
Woods, 6-1, 190 pounds, has been dinged up. That’s why the Trojans allow him to sit out of practice once a week to rest a grumpy ankle. Still, he’s tied for seventh in the conference (with Washington’s Kasen Williams) in catches per game.
West Virginia’s duo of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey have higher totals than Lee and Woods. But they have done so against horrendous pass defense. The Mountaineers exploited Baylor (ranked last in pass defense out of 120 FBS schools) and Marshall (74). They also throw it much more often than the Trojans, with 216 attempts versus USC’s 176.
Lee and Woods average more catches per game than Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, likely the Pac-12’s second-best duo. In one more game, they’ve also scored 12 touchdowns to six for the Beavers’ combination.
So, this is what passes as locking down Lee and Woods in a game: 12 catches for 138 yards.
Those were their totals in the Trojans’ 21-14 loss to Stanford, a possible death blow to USC’s shot at the national title.
The first step to Stanford’s success was punishing USC quarterback Matt Barkley. A search party was sent out to gather his limbs after Stanford’s front four and well-timed linebacker blitzes leveled the expected Heisman Trophy candidate throughout the evening. Barkley was sacked twice on USC’s final drive alone.
That pressure allowed the Cardinal’s defensive philosophy to shift to 1980s economic theory. Stanford had other defensive backs and linebackers trickle down to Lee and Woods because its rush was sufficient. Essentially, a defensive coordinator’s Utopia.
“We did a good job against USC, but there were still two times when those guys got behind us and they didn’t connect,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “They connect on those, and it might be a different game.”
Akin to preparing for Oregon, practice simulation for Lee and Woods is difficult to deliver. Shaw thinks each runs a 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, which no scout team can replicate. Even when cornerbacks provide a cushion, the two are fast enough to close it and go by.
“So, it’s not until game day that you see these guys,” Shaw said. “I think that’s one of the most interesting matchups of the weekend is (Washington cornerback Desmond) Trufant against those guys. Trufant’s one of the best in the nation. He’s going against the best in the nation. That should be a great battle.”
Wilcox said Trufant will at times be isolated on one of the Trojans’ key threats. Other times, the Huskies will scheme to provide Trufant help. Because of USC’s offense, Trufant can’t strictly track one receiver all day.
Here’s the issue: Both Lee and Woods will line up on the short side, far side, slot, backfield, on opposite sides of the field or right next to each other. Trojans coach Lane Kiffin also calls the offensive plays, many of which are designed to mask where Lee and Woods are.
“That’s the challenge,” Shaw said. “Eventually, one of those guys is going to get the ball in space, and it’s all about can you tackle him, get the ball on the ground, or are they going to get up the sideline and take one to the house?”
More often than not, it’s the latter. Something the Huskies have to stop Saturday.todd.dybas@ thenewstribune.com @Todd_Dybas blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports