By Gabriel Baumgaertner
September 14, 2012

Conner Preston vividly remembers the pages in his pregame notes that contained the screen pass diagrams. When he'd prep with his offense before each game, he wrote reminders in block letters for all to see.


Preston, now a redshirt freshman quarterback at SMU, used to be the quarterback for Junipero Serra (Calif.) High. In his two years as a starter, his targets included current USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee (as well as fellow Trojan George Farmer and Colorado's Paul Richardson).

"We all enjoy sports," Preston said. "We just wanted to watch them go down the field and make moves. The problem is we wouldn't be taking care of our assignments."

Who can blame Preston? He just wanted to watch Woods and Lee like the rest of us.

The former high school teammates have already put up one prolific season at USC, as they combined for 2,435 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns in 2011. Woods set the Pac-12 record for receptions in a season (111) and a single game (17 against Minnesota on Sept. 3), and Lee finished seventh in program history with 73 catches. Through two games this year, Woods has 16 receptions for 135 yards and four touchdowns. Lee has 21 grabs for 263 yards and four scores.

After exploding onto the scene last season, they're competing for an even loftier distinction this time around: becoming the best receiving tandem in USC history.

But will it matter if the Trojans can't complete a perfect season? It's still too early to make definitive statements, but pundits already labeled them "underwhelming" and "indifferent" following a win over Syracuse in Week 2. USC may be the only team in the country that could be deemed unimpressive after racking up 445 yards of total offense, but the critics weren't far off. This was Syracuse. The Trojans led by just five points entering the fourth quarter.

That's also when the offense decided to go to work. In the fourth quarter alone, Woods recorded a 76-yard run and 31-yard punt return while Lee caught two touchdown passes. Still, the performance felt like something of a letdown.

Lee and Woods are that good. When they're both playing at their best, perhaps no secondary in the nation stands a chance at slowing them down.

Defense is supposed to win championships, but whoever coined that phrase never saw Matt Barkley under center with Woods and Lee at his sides. Barkley's prolific totals are recognized, but it remains astounding just how much of the load Woods and Lee have shouldered. Woods finished with 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Lee tallied 1,143 yards and 11 scores. Both players seem to have embarked on even bigger campaigns in 2012.

With Woods, Lee and Barkley trotting out for every offensive series, USC poses an age-old question: Can a team score its way to a championship? Though the Trojans' defense is far from elite -- it has a young defensive line and has yet to fill a hole at one cornerback slot -- the notion is worthy of consideration.

"Both Marqise and Robert are unique and extremely talented in their own way, but usually you'll only have one guy like that," said Preston. "The defense can bracket them in that situation. Having both of them really limits what the defense can do. If you double up on one of them, you'll just get killed by the other."

If all goes according to plan, USC will send multiple players to New York for the Heisman ceremony and return to the BCS Championship Game. And if it doesn't, then this supremely talented cast will have failed, no matter how impressive its statistics. The weapons are there. Now it's up to coach Lane Kiffin to deploy them properly. Up to this point, his work has been commendable.

Kiffin will happily tout his bevy of Heisman hopefuls when asked, but he will pointedly address any implication that he has been gifted these players. When asked if Woods broke the Syracuse game open, Kiffin agreed, albeit tersely.

"That's why you recruit, right?" Kiffin said. "That's why we spend so much time, so we can get guys like 9 [Lee] and 2 [Woods]."

Lee and Woods would be the unquestioned headliners at any other school. But among coaches and teammates, "9 and 2" is the designation of choice. Even with immensely talented receivers like Farmer and De'Von Flournoy on the roster, "9 and 2" have surpassed everybody, to the point where they must be mentioned as stars in conjunction.

"Robert and Marqise practice as hard as anybody," said tight end Xavier Grimble, who has made three catches for 60 yards and touchdown so far this season. "Any day at practice you can count on 2 and 9 making big plays. They'll run down field or they'll catch a screen and go for 80. They're those type of guys."

Heading into this Saturday's showdown at Stanford -- USC's chance to end the Cardinal's three-game winning streak in the series -- the duo has also achieved something more significant. After one year of dysfunction and two more crippled by sanctions, USC has climbed back to the level it was at during Pete Carroll's tenure. Thanks to Barkley, Woods and Lee, the Trojans have become national frontrunners again.

"I always expect Robert to do something special," said Lee after the Syracuse game. "Even when he doesn't do something special, I am still expecting it to happen. He's been my teammate for a while now, so it doesn't necessarily surprise me."

Two weeks into the 2012 season, the rest of us are still adjusting. Like Preston, we're all ready to just sit back and enjoy the show.

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