SPORTS DIGEST: USC, UCLA begin season with high expectations

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

USC football fans are not used to their season ending the first week of December.

Even during a mediocre year, the Trojan faithful expect to be playing in a bowl game in December; the better the season the better the bowl game and the longer into December (and sometimes January) the season lasts the better for the fans.

Last year’s horrible season ended Dec. 4 with a 24-14 loss to Cal in Berkeley.

The Trojans finished 4-8 and lost their lost four games, after firing head coach Clay Helton two weeks into the season after a 42-28 loss to Stanford in the Coliseum.

Donte Williams, a defensive back and recruiting coordinator, took over for Helton, but couldn’t turn the season around. A 62-33 loss to UCLA (also at the Coliseum) sealed Williams’ fate as the Trojans and athletic director Mike Bohn shook things up, hiring Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma to be the new coach.

Riley’s hiring rejuvenated the Trojan faithful. He quickly went about the task of reshaping the Trojans roster, using the new tool of the transfer portal to bring in his freshman quarterback at Oklahoma, Caleb Williams, and 23 other new players. The Trojans used the transfer portal so much they almost changed their name to TPU.

Another big-name transfer was Jordan Addison, who won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in college football while at Pittsburgh last year. Riley also lured receiver Brendan Rice (son of Jerry) from Colorado, linebacker Shane Lee from Alabama and running backs Travis Dye from Oregon and Austin Jones from Stanford.

That improved the Trojans at the skill positions, but the Trojans were weak last season in the offensive line and the entre defense. Most of the offensive line returns from last season, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

And defensively, the Trojans are still thin on the defensive line and their secondary has lost some key players.

That said, the defense should improve because it can’t get worse. The Trojans surrendered 31.8 points a game last year, 103rd out of 130 major college football programs.

The Trojans gave up 30 or more points eight times last season; four times it was more than 40.

So the Trojans are going to have to score this year to win games. Fortunately, they have the talent to do that.

Dye and Jones figure to improve the Trojans’ running game, an essential part of Riley’s version of the Air Raid offensive system that he runs.

Riley brought Williams with him from Oklahoma and Kedon Slovis, who had started for three years, promptly transferred to Pittsburgh.

Williams didn’t start last season as the Sooners quarterback but he came off the bench in the sixth game of the season and rallied Oklahoma to a 55-48 win over Texas in that annual rivalry game and Spencer Rattler went to the sidelines, transferring to South Carolina at the end of the season.

Williams started the next week against Texas Christian and threw for 295 yards and four touchdowns, scoring a fifth touchdown on a 41-yard run.

Williams is already being mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate. To become a real candidate, the Trojans will have to win.

The experts expect the Trojans to be a top 20 team with several rankings having them as high as No. 9 in the nation. Yet, Utah is favored to win the Pac 12 South and the Pac 12 title. So the USC-Utah matchup Oct. 15 could determine how the Trojans season will go.

They open Sept. 3 against Rice, a Conference USA school from Houston, at 3 p.m. in the Coliseum. The game will be televised on the Pac 12 Network.

It will mark the start of a new era for the Trojans. The faithful hope that Lincoln Riley will be the next Pete Carroll, if not John McKay.

Both those coaches won national championships early in their USC careers. Trojans fans hope Riley will do the same, the sooner the better.

WESTWOOD OPTIMISM: Across town, the UCLA Bruins might be even more optimistic than the Trojans heading into the 2022 season.

The Bruins are still high from their 62-33 victory over USC last November. They followed that with a 42-14 win over Cal, ending the season on a three-game winning streak and scoring 148 points in those three games.

That turned a 5-4 season into an 8-4 season and only a December coronavirus outbreak kept the Bruins from playing in a bowl game last season.

This year, the Bruins hope their season ends in the Pac 12 title game and a top-tier bowl game.

Head coach Chip Kelly is now in his fifth year as coach and is responsible for the recruitment of his entire roster. It might be his last chance to prove that his success at Oregon wasn’t a fluke.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson is back for his fifth year as a starter and most of UCLA’s career quarterback records are within his sight. Yet, he might not be the most important part of the offense.

That could be running back Zach Charbonnet, who gained 1,137 yards and scored 13 touchdowns last season. He is being mentioned in some places as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.

Like USC, the Bruins success this year will be predicated on their defense. It doesn’t matter if your offense scores a point a minute if the defense is giving up touchdowns just as fast.

Kelly brought in a new defensive coordinator, Bill McGovern, a longtime NFL assistant coach who has little experience as a coordinator.

Twins Gabriel and Grayson Murphy have transferred from North Texas State and are expected to improve the pass rush, which could take some of the pressure off the secondary, which was porous last season.

The Bruins have an easy schedule at the start of the season. After opening Sept. 3 against Bowling Green, a Mid-American Conference school, the Bruins face Alabama State, an FCS school, and South Alabama from the Sun Belt Conference. All are at the Rose Bowl. If the Bruins don’t open 3-0, Kelly might nor survive September.

The Bruins then face Colorado and Washington, two Pac 12 schools not expected to contend for the conference title, so the Bruins could be 5-0 heading into its game Oct. 8. with Utah at the Rose Bowl. After a week off, the Bruins face Oregon on the road Oct. 22 before finishing the season with Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona, USC and Cal.

A 9-3 record is not impossible, but a lot is riding on what kind of season Thompson-Robinson has.

He enters the season fifth on the Bruins all-time passing yardage list with 7,541 yards. He is less than 2,200 behind career leader Cade McNown, who had 10,708 yards from 1995 to 1998.

He is fourth in career touchdown passes with 61, 14 back of Brett Hundley, who averaged 25 TDs a season in his three years in Westwood.

College football is always better when the UCLA-USC game in November means something to people outside Los Angeles. This year could be the first time that has happened in a while.

ARMS SHORTAGE: All of a sudden, the Dodgers roster depth is being tested. Tony Gonsolin, one of the biggest surprises for the Dodgers this year, is the latest to go the injured list with a strained forearm.

The Dodgers are optimistic he will miss only two starts and be able to pitch as soon as he is eligible to come off the disabled list, but that deep Dodger rotation isn’t as deep as it was a month ago when the team thought Walker Buehler would be returning in September.

Buehler had Tommy John surgery last week and will miss all of 2023 as well as the rest of this season. The Dodgers will know more where they stand after Clayton Kershaw returns from the injured list Sept. 1.

Right now the Dodgers starting rotation starts with Julio Urias, Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney, all left-handers.

Dustin May has looked promising in his first two starts after returning from his own Tommy John surgery, but the Dodgers need a healthy Gonsolin and Kershaw if they plan to make a deep run in the playoffs.

The Dodgers bullpen also needs help from injured reinforcements, with Blake Treinen being the most essential pitcher rejoining the mix.

Manager Dave Roberts and the front office have lost confidence in Craig Kimbrel in the closer role. That means a healthy Treinen — out since April with a shoulder injury — is a necessity.

Evan Phillips has been outstanding in whatever role Roberts has asked him to assume this season and Chris Martin has pitched well consistently since coming over from the Chicago Cubs before the trade deadline.

A healthy Gonsolin and Kershaw will allow Roberts to move Heaney and Anderson to the bullpen for the playoffs, giving Roberts more options than he currently has.

Of course if worse comes to worse, the Dodgers can always try to outslug their opponents. In recent weeks they have unloaded against last year’s Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes and this year’s projected Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara.

As a team, the Dodgers lead the National League in nine categories including runs, doubles, walks, batting average and on-base percentage. They have outscored opponents 690-403.

Their pitchers lead the league in six categories including wins, earned run average, fewest runs, fewest hits and fewest walks.

The Dodgers lead the Padres by 19-1/2 games in the National League, the Mets by nine games for the best overall record in the league and have a magic number under 15 heading into the final month of the season.

But all those stats won’t mean a thing if the depth management counted on to lead them into October isn’t there anymore.

 

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