SPORTS DIGEST: Offense couldn’t hide USC’s defensive shortcomings

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

In the end, the defense failed USC.

The Trojans failed to qualify for the 2022 College Football Playoffs because their defense couldn’t stop a good offense and their offense couldn’t outscore Utah.

The Utah Utes advanced to the Rose Bowl Jan. 2 by defeating the Trojans 47-24 Dec. 2 in the Pac 12 Championship Game in Las Vegas. The Utes handed their Trojans their only two losses of the season, scoring a last-minute touchdown and two-point conversion to win 43-42 back on Oct. 15 in Salt Lake City.

For most of the season, Caleb Williams and the rest of USC’s offensive weapons had managed to disguise the fact that USC’s defense was not very good.

The Trojans managed to get takeaways. They were tied with Louisville for the third most turnovers in the country with 28 and had the best turnover margin in the country because the offense only turned the ball over six times all season.

But when it came to stopping other teams from moving the ball, the Trojans simply weren’t very good. In 13 games, the Trojans forced only 42 punts, a little more than three a game.

Teams converted 43 % of their third downs against USC’s defense, 63% percent of their fourth downs.

When other teams got to the red zone, inside the Trojans’ 20-yard line, they scored 41 of 51 times, 34 of those times they scored touchdowns, not field goals.

If there was one play that epitomized the season for the Trojans in the championship game, it came early in the third quarter. Utah was facing a third-and-19 from their own 43-yard line. Quarterback Cameron Rising hit wide receiver Money Parks on a 12-yard crossing pattern, the closest defensive back to Parks missed a tackle and Parks was gone on a 57-yard scoring play.

The Trojans never recovered and Utah added three touchdowns in the last 10 minutes of the game to make the final score look like a bigger blow out than the game really was.

Williams, who should receive the Heisman Trophy Dec. 10 in New York, tried to bring the Trojans back, but he pulled a hamstring on a 59-yard scramble in the first quarter and was only a shell of himself the rest of the way.

Utah sensed Williams was hurt and turned on the pressure, knowing he was no longer a threat to run. He ended up being sacked seven times.

The Trojans dominated the first 18 minutes of the game, scoring on their first three possessions while jumping off to a 17-3 lead.

But Utah responded with two long touchdown drives to end the second quarter and the teams were tied 17-17 at halftime.

In the second half, the Trojans fell apart and fell out of the College Football Playoff in the process. Their reward for an 11-2 season will be trip to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl Jan. 2.

It is uncertain if Williams will be healed for that game. Williams just about sealed the Heisman on prime time center stage in the championship game.

He completed 28 of 41 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns and his 59-yard scramble was the longest run from scrimmage for the Trojans all season.

He finished the season with 4,075 yards passing and 37 touchdowns while throwing only four interceptions in 448 attempts. He also led the Trojans in touchdowns with 10.

The only college player I watched last weekend who was even close to Williams as far as being a dynamic all-around player was TCU quarterback Max Duggan, who had one heckuva fourth-quarter scoring drive in the Horned Frogs 31-28 overtime loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 Conference’s championship game.

With less than five minutes to go in a game Kansas State led 28-20, Duggan led his team on an eight-play, 80-yard drive to tie the score. The drive actually covered 100 yards because TCU lost five yards on a screen pass play and another 15 yards on a pass interference penalty.

Of the eight plays, Duggan scrambled five times. Those five plays gained 95 yards and were capped by an 8-yard scramble into the end zone by Duggan. He then hit Jared Wiley for a two-point conversion to tie the score with 1:51 left.

That drive was the best performance I’ve seen by a college player since Reggie Bush ran up 513 total yards against Fresno State in 2005.

The Trojans now gear up for the Cotton Bowl, where they will face Tulane and begin making plans to shore up their defense for next season.

The Trojans need better players and more depth along the defensive line and linebackers and better tacklers throughout the defense.

Coach Lincoln Riley rebuilt the offense through the transfer portal last offseason. With plenty of offensive weapons returning next season, he needs to find more quality defensive players so next year’s offense doesn’t have to outscore the opposition every week.

LAKERS ASCENDING: The Lakers lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 116-102 Dec. 6, stopping a three-game winning streak that came in the midst of an 8-2 stretch that suddenly finds the team only two games out of a spot in the play-in tournament and only 5 ½ games from the top of the Western Conference lead.

When healthy this season, Anthony Davis has been one of the best players in the NBA, giving Lakers’ fans some hope that this team isn’t as bad as we thought it was going to be when it started 2-10. Since then, the Lakers are 8-3, although they still have gaping holes in their roster.

Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook continue to be the big three for the Lakers and if one of them has an off night there is rarely anybody else to pick up the slack.

Against Cleveland, Davis played only eight minutes because of a flu-like illness. James scored 21 points to lead the Lakers, Westbrook added 16 points, but only guard Dennis Schroder and reserve forward Thomas Bryant joined those two in double figures.

The Lakers stayed close to the Cavaliers, who were led by of-season acquisition Donovan Mitchell with 43 points, until the fourth quarter, when they were blitzed 31-19 by the Cavs.

After a six-game road trip that ends Dec. 11 in Detroit, the Lakers return home Dec. 13 to face the Boston Celtics at the start of a three-game home stand.

OFFSEASON OVERHAUL: You would think that a team that won 111 games in a season would want to retain as many of its players as possible. Not the Dodgers.

The free agent defections continued this week with Cody Bellinger signing a one-year deal with the Cubs and Trea Turner signing a seven-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.

That’s at least six players from the playoff roster that won’t be back next year for the Dodgers. Starting pitchers Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney have signed with the Angels and Texas Rangers, respectively, and relief pitchers Tommy Kahnle and Chris Martin have agreed to deals with the Yankees and the Red Sox.

The good news is that Clayton Kershaw will return for at least one more season. No word on Justin Turner, who will not only have to accept a pay cut, but also might see a cut in playing time if he agrees to return.

The Dodgers want to give Miguel Vargas a long look next year and many think his best position is third base. Turner could end up being primarily a designated hitter next year, if he returns at all.

Young outfielder James Outman could be in line to replace Bellinger in the outfield after hitting .462 in 13 at bats in a brief appearance last year.

You can count on team president Andrew Friedman to make at least one major — surprising? — signing in the offseason as the Dodgers try to remain the top team in the National League West.

BITS AND PIECES: The Rams are getting desperate. After losing six straight games and quarterback Matthew Stafford to injuries, the Rams plucked former No. 1 draft choice Baker Mayfield off waivers from the Carolina Panthers Dec. 6.

Mayfield could start against the Raiders Dec. 8 at SoFi Stadium in this week’s Thursday night game, which will air on Fox as well as Apple, with little knowledge of the Rams playbook. After watching John Wolford and Bryce Perkins in recent weeks, Mayfield would have to be an improvement. …

The Chargers don’t look much better. They fell to 6-6 with the Dec. 4 loss to the Raiders, 27-20 and would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs started this week. They would help themselves immensely with a win over Miami this week in what will be the Sunday Night Game on NBC. …

The U.S. men’s team did about what I anticipated in the World Cup. They got through the group round and got knocked off in the first game of the knockout round, losing to a good team from the Netherlands, 3-1, Dec. 2.

For the U.S., this year’s World Cup was preparation for the 2026 World Cup, which we will host along with Canada and Mexico. The young players got some World Cup experience after the U.S. failed to qualify in 2018.

Four years from now, the U.S. team will have four more years of international experience and the U.S. will be four years closer to catching up with the top teams in the world.

The loss to the Netherlands showed just how much of a gap there is between the U.S. and the top teams in Europe, although the 1-1 draw with England showed we are closing that gap. …

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