By Don Wanlass
Quarterback is probably the most important position in team sports and that was more than evident twice over the past weekend.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA’s senior quarterback, demonstrated that Nov. 20 with a sterling performance in the Bruins 62-33 win over the USC Trojans and Los Angeles Chargers second-year quarterback Justin Herbert put an exclamation point on the statement the next day when the Chargers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 41-37.
Playing for the fourth time against the crosstown rival Trojans, Thompson-Robinson shook off throwing interceptions on his first two passing attempts to complete 16 of 22 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns. He also scored twice running the ball while rolling up 395 yards in total offense in a game that broke most of the scoring records in the 91-game rivalry.
The combined 95 points were the most ever scored in the series and 62 points were the most UCLA has ever scored against USC. The 62 points also tied the USC record for most points allowed.
Thompson-Robinson has had an up-and-down career at UCLA since arriving as a highly recruited star quarterback out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.
At 6-1, 205 pounds, he isn’t the largest quarterback and his penchant for running the ball and hurdling would-tacklers as led him to getting hurt and missing time throughout his career.
He is the inspirational leader of the UCLA offense and his infectious enthusiasm spills over to the rest of the team.
His final touchdown against the Trojans was pure DTR, as he is known to his teammates. On a play that was designed as a quarterback run, Thompson-Robinson followed his blockers around the right side.
Ten yards downfield he hurdled over a USC defensive back — who showed no inclination for making tackles most of the day — and continued on into the end zone for a 16-yard scoring play.
By that time the outcome had been decided. USC, playing behind freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart, was hanging touch and had fought back to a 35-26 score with nine seconds left in the third quarter after Dart teamed up with Gary Bryant Jr. on two consecutive pass plays that gained 75 yards and a touchdown.
But Kazmeir Allen took the ensuing kickoff from his own end zone and raced 100 yards for his third touchdown of the game and USC was outscored 20-7 in the fourth quarter, giving Chip Kelly his biggest win in four seasons coaching the Bruins.
The day after Thompson-Robinson’s heroics, Herbert showed why he is making a name for himself with the Chargers.
Playing in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football, Herbert matched two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throw for throw in a win that saw the Chargers blow a 27-10 lead entering the fourth quarter.
After the Steelers took a 37-34 lead with 3:24 left in the game, Herbert took only 1:15 off the clock to put the Chargers back ahead, hitting Mike Williams down the left sideline for 53 yards and the winning score.
The Chargers defense sacked Roethlisberger twice on the ensuing series to ice the win.
Herbert seemed to enjoy the national spotlight. He completed 30 of 41 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns, but he also was impressive running the ball, picking up 90 yards in 9 carries with most of those carries resulting in first downs.
Running back Austin Ekeler also took advantage of the Sunday night spotlight, scoring four touchdowns, two rushing and two receiving. Ekeler accounted for 115 yards (50 rushing, 65 receiving) on 17 touches.
The win leaves the Chargers in second place in the AFC West with a game coming up against the Denver Broncos Nov. 28. Four of the seven games remaining are against teams in their division, which means the Chargers control their own destiny.
In the hands of Herbert, their destiny should put them in the playoffs.
USC POST-MORTEM: USC’s performance against UCLA told everyone all they needed to know about this year’s Trojans. Overrated as the 15th team in the nation starting the season, the Trojans are now 4-6 with games remaining against BYU and Cal.
BYU is ranked in the top 15 with one loss and trying to move into the college playoff picture, so you can probably chalk up one more loss (that will be five home losses this season) for the Trojans.
Firing Clay Helton after the loss to Stanford in the second week of the season may have satisfied Trojans fans everywhere, but it has backfired on USC athletic director Mike Bohn.
Donte Williams might make a good head coach sometime down the road, but he is too inexperienced to make this USC team better than its record shows it to be.
The Trojans are weakest where it matters — both the offensive and defensive lines.
The defense has a whole is terrible and the offense isn’t good enough to outscore opponents week after week.
It’s up to Bohn to right this ship by making a good hire at head coach. USC needs a strong recruiting year that will make them more competitive next season while laying the foundation for the future.
It may be an attractive job to lots of coaches out there, but there will still be lots of work involved to bring the Trojans back to the stature their fans expect.
GAME OF THE WEEK: The Rams play the Green Bay Packers Nov. 28 in Lambeau Field in a matchup that could be repeated in January in the playoffs.
The Rams are 7-3 coming off their bye week, which followed a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Packers are 8-3 and hoping to bounce back from a last-second loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is nom stranger to Lambeau Field, playing there once a season during his career with the Detroit Lions.
He is 4-12 going up against Aaron Rodgers and he needs a win this week if the Rams are going to challenge for the NFC West title this season.
The week off has given the Rams a chance to rest and recover and get new linebacker Von Miller and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. more familiar with the offense and defense, respectively.
The game also will be a chess match between Rams coach Sean McVay and Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who was McVay’s offensive coordinator in 2017, McVay’s first year as head coach before moving on to Tennessee in 2018 and taking over in Green Bay in 2019.
LaFleur won 13 games in each of his first two years with the Packers.
A lot can happen in the final seven weeks of the season, but this game will be important in setting the tone for the last six weeks of the season for both teams.