Southern California's national championship dreams are dead, and Robert Woods believes it's partly because the Trojans care about each other too much.
Stick with him here: The All-American receiver says pride and team togetherness are why 18th-ranked USC leads the nation in penalties.
When the Trojans (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) spend too much time sticking up for their teammates with late hits, taunts and other shenanigans, those emotions lead to more mistakes between the whistles, and it all adds up to a bumper crop of penalties — a jaw-dropping 82 of them, in fact.
"I feel like this team has too much pride," Woods said. "It's a brotherhood here. Guys are looking out for each other, (but) you need to play within the rules. We've made dumb mistakes. I retaliated and got a penalty, too."
It's only one man's theory, but few Trojans can come up with anything better to explain the surprising lack of discipline from a team that had no significant penalty predilections last year. The Trojans committed just 71 penalties last season while going 10-2, but they've already vaulted over that mark with five or six games left in this season.
With No. 2 Oregon coming to the Coliseum on Saturday, the Trojans have run out of time to fix their mistakes before the start of their toughest stretch of the season. They've still got a sizable shot at the Pac-12 title game, but it's getting smaller with each yellow flag.
"SC, we have a reputation of being a nasty bunch or whatever," linebacker Dion Bailey said. "We go a step too far on some plays, and the referees aren't cutting us any break."
USC has been pushed back 677 yards by its penalties — a bit of a contrast from FBS-leading Navy, which has just 28 penalties for 213 yards. The Trojans' 10.25 penalties per game are significantly more than 119th-place Florida International's 8.56 per game.
USC coach Lane Kiffin and his staff have received much of the fans' criticism for his players' lack of discipline, despite weekly sessions rehashing those lapses on film.
"It's not a street fight," Kiffin said. "It's a game, and there's rules within that. A lot of them have the mentality where they're trained to protect their brother, and that's cost us in a lot of situations."
A week after Kiffin said he hoped the Trojans had "hit rock-bottom" in the penalty department with 10 penalties for 90 yards in a blowout win over Colorado, USC committed 13 penalties for 117 yards last weekend in the 39-36 loss at Arizona that knocked them out of the national title race and endangered their chances of playing in the Pac-12 title game.
"I'm completely shocked that we would still be having these conversations at this point," Kiffin said. "Sometimes you have them in the first couple of weeks with newer players or guys making mistakes, but to see the same ones over and over is really disappointing. It cost us the game (at Arizona), on top of all the plays we could have made."
USC has been penalized for at least 65 yards in every game this season. The Trojans have never committed fewer than seven penalties in a game, and they've hit double digits in five of their eight games, including the last four.
"We've got to take within ourselves the fact that we're representing a lot of people out there on the field," hard-hitting safety T.J. McDonald said. "The players that came before us, all the people that are watching us. We don't want to display an undisciplined team."
Even when the Trojans don't exactly make major mistakes, they're not getting many breaks. McDonald was whistled for a taunting penalty that extended a scoring drive by the Wildcats last weekend, but replays showed his facemask had actually become entangled in the helmet of the aggrieved Arizona player.
"I don't want to go back to it," McDonald said. "I put the team in some bad positions, and I apologized for that. It's unfortunate, but I've just got to keep playing hard and being me."