SPORTS DIGEST: USC tries to solve defensive woes against Notre Dame

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

USC entered this football season as the sixth-ranked team in the Associated Press poll. After scoring 122 points in wins over San Jose State and Nevada, the Trojans were elevated to the fifth spot in the rankings.

Five weeks later — after four more wins — the Trojans find themselves at 10th in this week’s rankings after three consecutive poor performances by the defense.

The Trojans travel to South Bend, Indiana, Oct. 14 for their annual battle with Notre Dame still unsure whether their national title aspirations are legitimate.

Yes, the Trojans are 6-0. But, after Arizona hung 41 points on the Trojans Oct. 7 — with a second-string, redshirt freshman quarterback — in a 43-41 overtime win, questions remain about USC.

The Trojans need to solve their defensive problems this week because the schedule gets tougher from here. After Notre Dame, the Trojans face Utah Oct. 21, Washington Nov. 4, Oregon Nov. 11 and UCLA Nov. 18. California on Oct. 28 appears to be the only soft spot remaining on the schedule.

And Notre Dame will be riled up after losing to Louisville Oct. 7, 33-20, dropping its record to 5-2 and practically eliminating them from the national championship picture. The Fighting Irish will look at this week’s USC game as a chance to salvage the season.

That means the Trojans are going to have to figure out how to tackle this week. They were lucky to defeat Arizona, especially after spotting the Wildcats a 17-0 lead.

Despite having his worst game of the season, quarterback Caleb Williams was able to rally the Trojans. Williams scored on a three-yard run in the third overtime for the winning two points.

He ran for three touchdowns in the game — one from 18 yards out — and threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Kyron Hudson prior to halftime to pull the Trojans within 17-14 despite being outplayed most of the first half.

The Trojans should have won the game 31-28 in regulation, but coach Lincoln Riley mismanaged the clock in the final two minutes and a game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock was foiled by a bad snap from center.

Had the Trojans only yielded 28 points in the game (11 after the first 17 minutes), the sniping at the Trojans defense might have stopped. But the reality is that the Trojans miss too many tackles and have too many blown coverages in the secondary, which is why their defense is ranked 109th in the country.

The defensive front has been much improved this year. The Trojans lead the country in tackles for losses, averaging more than 9 a game. 

But the defense has given up more than 500 yards the last two games and has averaged giving up more than 39 points in their last three games.

Those stats are starting to remind Trojans fans of last year’s defense, which gave up 47 points to Utah in the Pac 12 title game and 46 more to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl.

Now they face Notre Dame, which is led by quarterback Sam Hartman, a senior transfer from Wake Forest. Hartman has passed for 1,712 yards and 16 touchdowns in seven games this season. He didn’t throw an interception in the first six games, but threw three in last week’s loss Louisville. 

Audric Estime has been the Irish’s back running back this year with 692 yards and a 6.6 yards per carry average. But Louisville restricted him to 20 yards on 10 carries.

The Fighting Irish may have overlooked the undefeated Cardinals last week in anticipation of facing USC this week. They will be ready for the Trojans.

Whether the Trojans’ defense can rise to the occasion will determine whether the Trojans can start rising again in the polls. It doesn’t get any easier the rest of the way.

Game time is at 4:30 p.m. and the game will be televised on NBC.

BOUNCE BACK WIN: After taking a week off following their first loss of the season to Utah, 14-7 Sept. 23, the UCLA Bruins got back on the winning track Oct. 7 with a 25-17 victory over Washington State. The win catapulted the Bruins back into the AP Top 25 at 18 going into their Oct. 14 matchup with 15th ranked Oregon State.

The Bruins, who haven’t been known for playing defense during the Chip Kelly regime, have really improved this season, giving up only 61 points in five games. Washington State had one of the best offenses in the country, but the Bruins held the Cougars to only 216 total yards, 12 on the ground.

The Bruins were especially tough defensively on third down, allowing the Cougars to convert only two of 13 opportunities.

The Bruins’ freshman quarterback Dante Moore struggled against the Cougars, completing half of his 44 passes and throwing two interceptions, but running back Carson Steele helped the Bruins control the ball for more than 38 minutes while gaining 140 yards on 30 carries.

And after Steele wore out the Cougars defense, senior backup Keegan Jones sealed the win with 13- and 22-yard touchdowns runs within a 103-second span of the fourth quarter for the margin of victory.

The Bruins now get the 5-1 Oregon State Beavers, whose only loss came on the road at Washington State, 38-35. 

The Beavers are led by quarterback DJ Uiagaleiei, the one-time standout at St. John Bosco, who transferred to Oregon State after three years at Clemson.

Uiagaleiei has been a game manager for the Beavers this season. He has thrown for 1,068 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing 4 interceptions. He is coming off a five-touchdown game against Cal Oct. 7 in a 52-40 win.

The game will be in Corvallis, where the Beavers are hard to beat. Game time is 5 p.m. and Fox will televise the game.

ON THE BRINK: By the time you read this, the Dodgers season may be over. 

Just like they did last season, the Dodgers came out flat in the National League Division Series after having five days off after the regular season ended.

After two games, the Dodgers are 0-2 to the Arizona Diamondbacks, facing elimination in game 3 Oct. 11, a game that starts about 18 hours before The Wave hits the streets.

Without many options available, manager Dave Roberts turned things over to Lance Lynn for game 3. Lynn has actually pitched well for the Dodgers since coming over at the trade deadline in a deal with the Chicago White Sox.

He was 7-2 in 11 starts with the Dodgers, but everyone remember the two games he lost and not the other nine starts.

The Dodgers were plagued by the same thing in the first two games of the series that they were last year against San Diego — a failure to drive in runs in crucial situations. It didn’t help that they fell behind 6-0 and 3-0 before coming to bat in either game.

If they survive Oct. 11, game 4 is at 6 p.m. Oct. 12 on TBS and game 5 (if necessary) will be Oct. 14 at 6:20 p.m., also on TBS.

AS EXPECTED: Entering the sixth week of the season, the Rams are right where I expected them to be at 2-3. They defeated Seattle and Indianapolis while losing to San Francisco, Cincinnati, and most recently, Philadelphia.

It’s no shame to lose to the 49ers and Eagles who are two of the top five teams in the league this year.

With home games Oct. 15 and 22 against the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Rams have a chance to get back over .500 and put themselves in the playoff hunt.

The Cardinals come to SoFi this week with a 1-4 record. Their starting quarterback Kyler Murray is still recovering from knee surgery so they are stuck with Joshua Dobbs at quarterback. Dobbs has been in the NFL since 2017, bouncing around from Pittsburgh to Jacksonville, back to Pittsburgh then to Cleveland, Detroit, Tennessee and then Cleveland again before being traded to Arizona in August.

Prior to this season, he had appeared in eight games with only two starts, which he lost last year in Tennessee.

The Cardinals also lost their top running to injury last week, so the Rams should have no problems stopping the Cardinals this week.

The Rams offense got a boost last week when wide receiver Cooper Kupp returned to the active list. Kupp caught eight passes for 118 yards in his season debut and seemed to mix in well with Puka Nacua, the rookie sensation who continued to produce with seven catches for 71 yards and a touchdown.

Nacua now has 46 receptions for 572 yards and two touchdowns in his first five NFL games. The Rams are so deep at wide receiver that they traded Von Jefferson, a second-round draft pick three years ago, to the Atlanta Falcons along with a seventh round draft pick for a sixth round draft pick. Jefferson dropped two many passes during his four years here and never regained his form after having knee surgery after the 2022 Super Bowl victory.   

The Chargers are coming off their bye week and return to action Oct. 16 at SoFi against the Dallas Cowboys. The Monday night game will give the 2-2 Chargers a chance to get over the .500 mark after dropping their first two games.

The Cowboys will still be smarting from their 42-10 loss to the 49ers Oct. 8 in a game that wasn’t that close.

The Chargers should have running back Austin Ekeler healthy for the Cowboys after he sprained his ankle in the season opener against Miami.