By Don Wanlass
Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s the second weekend of December and not the end of November. And maybe the rivalry has lost some of its luster.
Somehow, this week doesn’t feel like Rivalry Week, the week where USC and UCLA meet on the football field to see which is the best college football team in Los Angeles this year.
Never has the game been played so late in the year. Usually, it comes the same weekend as Thanksgiving.
But the Pac 12 got a late start this year because of COVID-19 and we should be lucky they’re playing the game at all at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 12 in the Rose Bowl. ABC will be bringing us the game.
USC fans, who loathe head coach Clay Helton almost as much as they loathe UCLA, don’t know what to think. Helton is 4-0 this year and will have to lose to UCLA and a bowl game to get fired now.
The Trojans don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of playing for the national championship this year, but they could win the Pac 12 title for the first time since they started playing a Pac 12 championship game in 2011, which might placate some USC fans.
After surviving the first two weeks of the season, the Trojans have played well in their last two games, blowing out Washington State Dec. 6 38-13 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
The Trojans looked like the old Pete Carroll Trojans in the first quarter against Washington State. Kedon Slovis hit Amon-Ra St. John with four touchdown passes in the first half and the Trojans put in on cruise control the rest of the way.
UCLA won’t be that easy. The Bruins have won three of their last four games and are over .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2015 when Jim Mora’s team was 8-5.
The Bruins are as good as their defense. They have given up 86 points in their two losses and 38 points in their three wins.
The offense kept up with Colorado and Oregon in the two losses but the defense couldn’t stop either team. The defense played better against Cal, Arizona and Arizona State, but Slovis, St. Brown and company will let Chip Kelly see where his team really stands in the last week of the regular season.
The Bruins are not the offensive juggernaut Kelly had when he coached Oregon, but, behind junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, they have been able to put points on the scoreboard. Demetric Felton and Brittain Brown have rejuvenated the running game and the Bruins can finish above .500 with a win this week.
Whether the defense can slow down the Trojans is another story. The Trojans never got their running game going against Washington State, finishing with five net yards on 20 carries.
That isn’t USC football. But when you have receivers like St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, Drake London and Bru McCoy, and a quarterback like Slovis who can get it to them, you don’t need to run the football.
We are lucky we have college football this year so we are lucky to have the USC-UCLA rivalry game this week.
It doesn’t seem the same, but it might by game time Saturday. And that’s all we can hope for this year.
FINAL NAIL?: Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn caught the coronavirus earlier this year during the off-season. He managed to survive without most of the symptoms that put people in the hospital.
If he survives the rest of the season with the Chargers, he will have really accomplished something.
Most NFL owners would have fired Lynn Dec. 7, the day after the Chargers lost to the New England Patriots 45-0. If there were fans in the seats, maybe Dean Spanos would have reacted differently, but the Spanos family has always run the Chargers strangely.
These weren’t the Tom Brady Patriots. These were the 5-6 Patriots with Cam Newton at quarterback.
Justin Herbert picked the wrong time to have the worst game of his rookie season. He completed only 26 of 53 passes for 209 yards with two interceptions, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been known to do that to rookie quarterbacks.
The Chargers fell apart in all aspects of the game, particularly on special teams.
The Patriots scored on a long punt return and by returning a blocked field goal. This happening a couple of weeks after Lynn fired his special teams coach.
Good teams shape the back end of the roster to enable them to have solid players on the special teams. The Chargers apparently don’t. Or maybe they have had so many injuries this year that the players on the back end of the roster aren’t quite NFL caliber.
Whatever it is, the Chargers need to fix it.
They were supposed to contend for the playoffs this year. Instead they are contending for a real good draft pick, but they already have a franchise quarterback, they just need to put more good players around him.
The Chargers pay the Rams $1 a year to rent SoFi Stadium for eight games a season, so they make money without selling a ticket, which they are proving this year.
And it’s not like their fans care. They don’t have any fans. Maybe Lynn survives this, just like he survived his bout with COVID. Maybe he belongs on that TV show.
AN ENIGMA: You never know what Los Angeles Rams team will show up on any given Sunday. Currently, they are 8-4, tied for the lead in the NFC West with Seattle. The Rams hold the tiebreaker edge over the Seahawks because of their 23-16 win against them four weeks ago.
Three-fourths of their way through the schedule, the Rams appear to be rounding in to form. They have won three of their last four games.
The win came against teams with winning records (the Cardinals were 6-5 before losing to the Rams, 38-28 Dec. 6).
The loss was to the San Francisco 49ers, who have five wins this year, two against the Rams.
The Rams’ other two losses are against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, two teams contending for the AFC East.
The Rams this year are a better defensive team. That’s saying something about the defense because the Rams’ offense averages 25 points a week. Jared Goff has a bevy of receivers to throw the ball to and rookie running back Cam Akers is starting to find his way three quarters of the way through the season.
As Goff goes, so go the Rams. In their four losses, Goff has thrown six interceptions. He has 10 on the year.
With games against the Patriots, the Jets, the Cardinals and the Seahawks, the Rams could easily go 11-5 and win the division. But they can’t afford to slip up, especially against the Patriots and the Jets in the next two games.
ROAD TRIPS: Santa Clara County, where the 49ers play, banned team sports competitions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the 49ers to play their last two home games this season in Phoenix.
Despite the recent clamp downs in Los Angeles County because of the pandemic, it looks like the Chargers and Rams will escape that fate.
According to a report by Yahoo Sports, the NFL has reached out to both local teams about moving their remaining home games and practice facilities outside of California for the remainder of the season.
So far, there has been no further word on the subject.
The Rams play three of the their last four games at SoFi Stadium. The Chargers have two homes games remaining.
BRANDING: After getting dumped by Under Armour earlier this year, UCLA announced this week that it had reached an agreement with Nike and its Jordan Brand to become the Bruins’ official athletic gear provider beginning this coming summer.
The Nike contract begins July 1 and spans six years, the school said Dec. 8, with the sportswear giant supplying apparel to all 25 of UCLA’s varsity sports teams.
Nike will supply each squad with uniforms, apparel and equipment, with Jordan outfitting the football and men and women’s basketball programs.
With the agreement, UCLA becomes only the fifth university in the country to partner with Jordan on football, the school said.
Officially licensed Nike and Jordan gear for UCLA is expected in stores in fall 2021.
UCLA sued Under Armour in August, alleging the company used the COVID-19 pandemic as a “pretext” to dissolve its $280 million, 15-year sponsorship agreement with UCLA. The Under Armour deal was among the largest sponsorship deals in the history of college sports.
In September, UCLA voluntarily dismissed its breach of contract lawsuit against Under Armour in Los Angeles federal court while pursuing the complaint in state court.
City News Service contributed to this story.
CAPTION (USC WSU)
USC safety Talanoa Hufanga hurdles Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura after intercepting a pass in the first quarter of the Trojans’ 38-13 win Dec. 6. The Trojans jumped off to a 28-0 first quarter lead.