By Don Wanlass
The two teams that call SoFi Stadium home couldn’t have started their seasons in more different fashions.
Three days after the defending Super Bowl champion Rams laid an egg on national television in a 31-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Chargers held off a fourth-quarter comeback attempt by the Las Vegas Raiders in a 24-19 victory Sept. 11.
The Rams probably aren’t as bad as they looked against Buffalo, a team that many are picking to be the American Football Conference representative in the Super Bowl next February. The weakest part of the Rams’ team — the offensive line — stood out in a negative way in the opener.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked seven times by the Bills and the running game averaged only 2.89 yards per carry. And the offensive line’s problems may continue after center Brian Allen suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for two to four weeks and left tackle Joe Noteboom strained a knee, an injury coach Sean McVay said shouldn’t cause him to miss this week’s game against Atlanta.
Noteboom already had the task of replacing the retired Andrew Whitworth as Stafford’s blind side protector. Now he has to do it on an injured knee.
Only one other team got beat worse than the Rams on opening week. That was division rival Arizona, which faced another offensive buzz saw in the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs posted 44 against the Cardinals in a 23-point win.
Only two other teams gave up more than the Rams’ 31 points and that came in the wild 38-35 Philadelphia Eagles win over the Detroit Lions.
The Rams defense never forced the Bills to punt in 10 possessions. In fact, the game would have been a bigger blowout if the Rams hadn’t taken the ball away from the Bills four times
The offense also left plenty of room for improvement. In addition to being sacked seven times, Stafford threw three interceptions.
Cooper Kupp was his usual outstanding self, catching 13 passes for 128 yards and the Rams’ only touchdown, but off-season acquisition Allen Robinson caught only one pass.
Running back Cam Akers has apparently played his way into McVay’s doghouse. He gained no yards on three carries and Darrell Henderson took most of the snaps at running back, ending up with 47 yards in 13 carries.
The Rams are going to need more from the running game if for no other reason than to slow down the pass rush. The Rams won’t get very far this season giving up seven sacks a game.
It’s much too early for the Rams — or their fans — to panic. The Bills are a good team and are going to score lots of points most weeks.
Everyone else in the NFC Western Division also lost on opening week except the Seattle Seahawks and no one expects Seattle to contend for the division title. A win over the Falcons this week and the Rams are back at .500.
Still, opening week revealed that it won’t be an easy road back to the Super Bowl for the Rams this year.
The Chargers, on the other hand, looked like a team with post-season aspirations after knocking off a solid Raiders team. The Chargers jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead and then held off a late Raiders rally, sacking Raiders’ quarterback Derek Carr twice as the Raiders tried to rally with under four minutes left to play.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert continued to shine, even though he lost his favorite receiver Keenan Allen early due to a hamstring injury. Herbert completed 26 of 34 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns, didn’t throw an interception and avoided getting sacked. His 26 completions went to nine different receivers.
Carr, on the other hand, was sacked five times and threw three interceptions as the Chargers defense benefited from the addition of Khalil Mack as an outside edge rusher. Mack, a former Raider, recorded three of the Chargers’ five sacks.
The Chargers get no time to enjoy their win. They play the Kansas City Chiefs Sept. 15 in a game that will determine the early-season hierarchy in the AFC West, which might be the best division in the NFL.
SUPER SATURDAY: Sept. 10 was a prime example of what I love about college football. The NFL likes to say anything can happen on any given Sunday in the professional ranks. The same is definitely true about the college game on Saturday.
Three teams from the Sun Belt Conference went up against major college football powers (OK, maybe Nebraska is no longer a major power) on the road and came away with victories.
Marshall defeated Notre Dame, 26-21, knocking the Fighting Irish out of the top 25. Appalachian State, which famously upset Michigan 15 years ago, knocked off sixth-ranked Texas A&M, 17-14, and Georgia Southern ended the best day in the conference’s history with a 45-42 win over Nebraska, a loss that cost Nebraska head coach Scott Frost his job.
That win had to be especially satisfying to Georgia Southern’s coach Clay Helton, the same Clay Helton who was fired by USC a year ago after a second-week loss to Stanford.
The NFL offers about 10½ hours of football every Sunday. College football starts an hour earlier on Saturday and lasts a couple of hours later. Last week started with Alabama playing Texas at 9 a.m., a game Alabama won 20-19 on a 33-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in the game.
It ended with 21st-ranked BYU defeating ninth-ranked Baylor 26-20 in double overtime after 11 p.m.
In between, USC and UCLA also advanced to 2-0 on the season.
The Bruins easily defeated Alabama State, 45-7, in a game at the Rose Bowl that was highlighted by the Alabama State band’s halftime performance.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly didn’t play running back Zach Charbonnet at all and lifted quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson two minutes into the second quarter after he completed nine of 11 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown.
The Bruins led 14-0 after one quarter, 31-7 at the half and played mostly second and third stringers for most of the second half.
The Bruins’ cream puff non-conference schedule continues Sept. 17 with South Alabama visiting the Rose Bowl.
USC’s win over Stanford was slightly more impressive, if only because the Trojans haven’t had much success in Palo Alto recently. The Trojans hadn’t won in Palo Alto since 2014 and were 7-10 in the last 17 meetings against the Cardinals.
They relied on the strong arm of quarterback Caleb Williams and an opportunistic defense that recorded four turnovers for the second straight week to win 41-28.
Williams completed 20 of 27 passes for 341 yards and 4 touchdowns without throwing an interception.
His 75-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Addison was a thing of beauty. It traveled more than 50 yards in the air and hit Addison in stride. The receiver then broke a tackle and continued to the end zone, giving the Trojans a 21-7 lead that proved to be insurmountable.
The Cardinals outscored the Trojans 14-0 in the fourth quarter to make the final score closer than the game really was.
Stanford did gain 441 yards against the Trojans’ defense, but the Trojans intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles, giving them eight turnovers in the first two games of the season.
Two of the turnovers came inside the Trojans’ 10-yard-line, spoiling Stanford scoring opportunities, while the Trojans coasted offensively for most of the second half, scoring just two field goals in the third quarter.
The Trojans did get a chance to work on their running game. Oregon transfer Travis Dye gained 105 yards in 14 carries, including a 27-yard touchdown run and Stanford transfer Austin Jones gained 38 yards in eight carries as the Trojans gained 164 yards on 36 carries.
After two wins to start the season, the Trojans face a trap game Sept. 17 against Fresno State at 7:30 in the Coliseum.
The Bulldogs are 1-1 after losing to Oregon State, 35-32 in their season opener and blowing out Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 35-7, last week.
Fresno State is coached by Jeff Tedford, who played high school football at Warren High in Downey and junior college ball at Cerritos College before completing his college career at Fresno State.
Quarterback Jake Haener is a transfer from Washington who led the Bulldogs to a 40-37 win over UCLA a year ago. He threw for more than 4,000 yards last season and has already thrown for more than 700 yards this season, so he can be dangerous.
Fresno State also has a loyal following in the Central Valley and is counting on 10,000 fans or more to make the 200-mile trip for the game.
It’s the kind of game previous Trojan teams might have overlooked with Oregon State coming up the following week.
It will test head coach Lincoln Riley’s ability to keep his team focused for this one.
HO, HUM: The Dodgers clinched the National League Western Division title for the ninth time in 10 seasons Sept. 13, a 4-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks officially advancing the Dodgers to the postseason three weeks before the regular season ends.
The Dodgers lead the Padres by 20½ games and the Padres have only 20 games remaining.
Back on June 22, the Dodgers and Padres were tied for the division lead with 41-25 records. Since then, the Dodgers have gone 56-18, an unbelievable .757 winning percentage, to run away with the division title.
The Dodgers now have four weeks to prepare for the playoffs, a period in which complacency may be their toughest foe.
They need to see what pitchers will be healthy for the postseason so they can determine what their starting rotation will be. If the playoffs started tomorrow, I would say Julio Urias, Clayton Kershaw and Tyler Anderson will be three of the starters for the playoffs.
If Tony Gonsolin recovers from a forearm strain, he could be the fourth starter, allowing Dustin May to pitch out of the bullpen. The bullpen has issues, too, most of which involve the health of Blake Treinen, Tommy Kahnle and Brusdar Graterol.
Craig Kimbrel has been unscored on in his last eight outings, solidifying his role as closer.
Offensively, Freddie Freeman has the highest batting average and the most hits in the major leagues, Mookie Betts has scored more runs and the Dodgers continue to mash the ball against all comers.
The playoffs are a different animal and a team can get hot for a week (or a month like the Braves did last year) and knock off a team like the Dodgers. They are coasting now, but they will have to hit the gas once again come October.