SPORTS DIGEST: Rams surprise Seattle in 30-13 opening week victory

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The Los Angeles Chargers still can’t stop anybody when it matters. The Rams might be better than anybody thought.

Those are two of the conclusions you could draw after the first week of the National Football League’s 2023 season. Seventeen weeks remain and anything can — and probably will — happen between now and January, but Rams’ fans have higher expectations now than they did this time last week after watching the Rams go on the road and defeat the Seattle Seahawks 30-13 Sept. 10.

After playing only nine games last year due to a bruised spine, quarterback Matthew Stafford returned to action and to his 2021 form. He completed 24 of 38 passes for 334 yards. Tutu Atwell and Puka Kacua replaced the injured Cooper Kupp at wide receiver and the defense held the Seahawks to 180 total yards and shut them out in the second half.

It was an all-around team win for the Rams. The offense was efficient, converting 11 of 17 third downs and controlling the ball for more than 39 minutes. 

The defense limited Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith to only 112 yards passing and sacked him twice. Seattle running game netted only 85 yards. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Rams host the San Francisco 49ers, who are coming off a 30-7 road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sept. 17. The 49ers looked liked one of the top teams in the league in the opener, but the Rams don’t seem that far behind them. 

This week’s game will tell a lot more about what kind of team the Rams will be. 

A healthy Stafford is crucial to the Rams’ success. He led the Rams to the Super Bowl in the 2021 season. With Stafford missing the last eight games of the season in 2022, the Rams fell to 5-12 last year and many Rams fans expected the Rams would be closer to the Caleb Williams sweepstakes in next year’s draft than in contention for the playoffs.

Aaron Donald is the only big name returning on the defense. Only three of the top 10 tacklers from the 2022 team remain on the roster: Donald, linebacker Ernest Jones and second-year defensive back Derion Kendrick.

But the Rams defense held the Seahawks to only 12 net yards on four possessions in the second half, while the Rams offense scored on all five second-half possessions.

The Chargers did better offensively than the Rams in their season opener, but the defense couldn’t stop the Miami offense when it had to. 

Aided by a pass interference call against Chargers corner back J.C. Jackson, the Dolphins took only nine seconds to get a field goal at the end of the first half to lead 20-17 at the break. 

Jackson made another mistake in the third quarter when he intercepted a pass in the end zone and tried to advance the ball instead of taking a knee. He was tackled at the 4-yard line.

The ensuing punt went only 34 yards, setting the Dolphins up at the Chargers 35 yard line. On the first play Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa found Tyreek Hill with a 35-yard touchdown pass, giving the lead back to the Dolphins.

The Chargers led 31-27 and 34-30 in the fourth quarter, but the Dolphins got the ball back with less than three minutes to play and drove 75 yards in eight plays to score on another Tagovailoa to Hill pass with 1:45 left in the game.

The Chargers had one more opportunity to win the game but quarterback Justin Herbert was sacked twice and had an intentionally grounding penalty in the last five plays and the Dolphins ran out the clock.

There was nothing wrong with the Chargers offense. They gained 234 yards on the ground with Austin Ekeler gaining 117 yards on 16 carries and Joshua Kelley gaining 91 more yards. 

Herbert completed 23 of 33 passes for 228 yards, but was sacked three times.

But the Chargers defense couldn’t stop Tagolaivoa and Hill. Tagolaivoa completed 28 of 45 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns. Hill caught 11 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns. 

The Chargers have an easier test this week against the Tennessee Titans. If there was a silver lining to the opening week it was that everybody else in the AFC West lost except for the Las Vegas Raiders.

Still, the Chargers need to solve their defensive issues quickly or head coach Brandon Staley might end up in the unemployment line.

WISE DECISION: It didn’t take long for UCLA head coach Chip Kelly to solve his quarterback controversy. After freshman Dante Moore obviously outplayed redshirt junior Ethan Garbers in the season-opening win over Coastal Carolina, Kelly said he still intended to play his top three quarterbacks against San Diego State in game two.

But when it came time for the Bruins offense to take the field for the first time Sept. 10, there was Moore, not Garbers, in the starting lineup. In fact, Garbers never got in the game that saw the Bruins defeat the Aztecs 35-10. 

Moore completed 17 of 27 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns. Running backs T.J. Harden and Carson Steele combined for 175 yards while averaging 8.33 yards per carry and the Bruins raced out to a 28-19 halftime lead on the way to their second win. 

The Bruins get a breather this week, playing North Carolina Central at the Rose Bowl at 2 p.m. Sept. 16 before opening Pac 12 play the following week against Utah. That will be the season’s first big test for the Bruins.

OFFENSIVE BUZZSAW: The USC Trojans will take a week off this week after scoring their third impressive victory of the season, this one a 56-10 beat down over Stanford.

The Trojans led 49-3 at halftime and head coach Lincoln Riley gave quarterback Caleb Williams the entire second half off. Williams completed 19 of 21 passes in the first half for 281 yards and three touchdowns.

Freshman sensation Zachariah Branch returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter for his second touchdown return in three weeks and the Trojans never looked back.

Stanford rolled up 349 yards against the Trojans defense, but turned the ball over three times.

Riley got to look at a lot of his players. Backup quarterback Miller Moss played the entire second half, completing 11 of 15 passes for 112 yards. In all, eight Trojans carried the ball, 12 caught passes and 23 recorded at least one tackle.

After this week’s bye, the Trojans continue Pac 12 play Sept. 23 against Arizona State before facing the surprising Colorado Buffaloes Sept. 30 in Boulder.

PITCHING WOES: The Dodgers will probably clinch the National League West division title this weekend against the Seattle Mariners, giving them two weeks to decide on a pitching rotation for the playoffs. 

It won’t be what they anticipated on Aug. 1, let alone what they expected at the start of the season.

In April, the Dodgers had a rotation of Julio Urias, Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergard, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. 

In September, Gonsolin and May have had season-ending surgeries, Syndergard was traded to the Cleveland Guardians, who have since released him, and Urias has been placed on administrative leave by Major League Baseball while under investigation for domestic violence for the second time in five years.

Only Kershaw remains and he spent six weeks on the injured list with a shoulder ailment and hasn’t been the same since he came back.

That leaves rookie pitchers Bobby Miller, Ryan Pepiot and Gavin Stone and trade deadline acquisition Lance Lynn pitching for spots in the post-season rotation.

Kershaw will start Sept. 16 against Seattle with hopes that his fastball can hit higher than 88 miles an hour on the speed gun.

If he doesn’t regain his form, the playoff rotation could be Lynn, Miller, Pepiot and Stone.

Lynn gave up his 41st home run of the season Sept. 12 in the Dodgers 11-2 win over the San Diego Padres. It was Lynn’s fifth win since being acquired in late July, but it came after he had been rocked for 15 runs in 9 innings of his two previous starts.

Counting his time with the White Sox, Lynn has a 5.94 earned run average this season and his 41 home runs lead the majors.

Miller, Pepiot and Stone all are promising young pitchers, but it will be hard to rely on two let alone three rookie pitchers in the postseason.

Miller has been better than expected, posting a 9-3 record with a 3.98 earned run average in 18 starts. He regularly reaches 100 mph on the speed gun and has shown he can get major league hitters out.

Pepiot spent most of the season recovering from a muscle injury suffered in the last week of spring training. He has been very good in two starts, allowing no runs and three hits in 12 innings with six strikeouts. He was 3-0 in seven starts last season and with a fastball and changeup that are both above average he can get major league hitters out, but the playoffs are another story. 

Right now the Dodgers are hoping Kershaw has something left for October and that Lynn, Miller and Pepiot and an improved bullpen with get them past the divisional round of the playoffs. Whether that rotation will hold up against the Atlanta Braves is another story.

The Dodgers could simply outhit most other teams. As a team, they trail only the Braves in most offensive categories. They have eight players with 10 or more home runs, three with 90 or more runs batted in and two — Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman — in contention for the National League most valuable player award. 

But pitching often dominates hitting in the postseason and the Dodgers might be limited when it comes to starting pitching once the playoffs arrive.

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