SPORTS DIGEST: USC-UCLA rivalry game still has playoff implications

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Last week I wrote about the renaissance in Pac 12 football, how the conference had as many as four teams that could qualify for the College Football Playoffs this year.

Then Oregon and UCLA went out and ended their chances for the playoffs by losing to Washington and Arizona, respectively.

One could argue that the fact that Washington and Arizona could go on the road and upset teams as good as Oregon and UCLA shows how good the Pac 12 Conference really is in football, but the fact of the matter is that Oregon fell to No. 12 in the college Football Playoffs rankings and UCLA fell to No. 16, effectively ending either teams’ chances of making the playoffs.

That leaves it up to USC to fight its way into the playoff system, which has not had a Pac 12 school since Washington in 2016, and USC is going to have to win its last three games and hope TCU and Tennessee lose between now and Dec. 3.

That means the Trojans will have to defeat archrivals UCLA and Note Dame in the next two weeks and then win the Pac 12 Championship Game Dec. 2 against Oregon, Utah or Washington. That’s quite a gauntlet for first-year coach Lincoln Riley and his team that will have to accomplish that difficult feat without a vital cog to the offense — running back Travis Dye, who suffered a season-ending leg injury against Colorado Nov. 12.

UCLA’s loss to Arizona took some of the luster off this week’s crosstown rivalry game between the Bruins and the Trojans. For a while it looked like this would be the first meeting between the teams with both of them ranked in the top 10 since 1988.

That was an epic battle between two star quarterbacks — Troy Aikman for the Bruins, Rodney Peete for the Trojans — won by USC, 31-22. Peete and Aikman finished second and third in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year to Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders.

This year’s battle also will feature two outstanding quarterbacks — UCLA’s senior leader Dorian Thompson-Robinson and USC’s sophomore Caleb Williams.

Thompson-Robinson may have played his best game in his five seasons at UCLA in last year’s rivalry game.

He threw for 349 yards and four touchdowns and ran for two more scores as the Bruins defeated the Trojans, 62-33. He has promised another win this year.

Running back Zach Charbonnet gained 167 yards, averaging 8 yards per carry and scored a touchdown in that game as the Bruins rolled up 609 yards on the Trojans.

The Trojans can counter Thompson-Robinson and Charbonnet with Williams and a talented group of receivers that will give UCLA coach Chip Kelly and his defense fits.

Williams has thrown for 3,010 yards and 31 touchdowns on the season while only being intercepted twice. He also has gained 283 yards and scored six times running the football.

Receiver Jordan Addison returned to action last week against Colorado after missing several games and will be closer to full strength. He leads the Trojans with 40 receptions and 7 touchdowns on the season, but the Trojans have had 17 players catch passes this year and 12 have caught touchdown passes.

The Trojans will be more concerned about their running game after losing Dye last week.

Austin Jones started for Stanford last year and will probably get most of the carries for the Trojans, but look for Raleek Brown, a freshman from Mater Dei, to see his most action of the year. Brown has scored three times on 38 touches this season and has break-away speed.

Both teams have more questions than answers defensively. The Bruins couldn’t stop Arizona when it had to in their 34-28 loss last week and have allowed more than 30 points six times this season, including five of their last six games.

After giving up 35 or more points in three straight games, the Trojans held Colorado to only 17 last week in a dominating 55-17 win.

You can expect a high-scoring affair with a lot of passing yards. The team that makes the most defensive stops will be the team that wins.

NOT SO SUPER: Most Super Bowl winning teams suffer a let down the following year. The Rams have gone much further this year, hitting rock bottom in the NFC Western Division Nov. 13 after their 27-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals that left the Rams 3-6 and searching for answers.

Injuries have taken a big toll on the Rams this season and they may have suffered their biggest one against the Cardinals, losing wide receiver Cooper Kupp to an ankle injury that requires surgery.

The Rams also played the game without starting quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was out with a concussion. In nine games so far, the Rams have used eight different starting offensive line combinations because of injuries as well.

Defensively, the Rams allowed Cardinals backup quarterback Colt McCoy to complete more than two-thirds of his passes for 238 yards.

The Rams led 3-0 in the first quarter only to give up the next 17 points and never got back in the game.

They face the New Orleans Saints Nov. 20 on the road and then face the Kansas Chiefs on the road Nov. 27, so the schedule isn’t getting any easier.

The Rams will need a major winning streak to get back in the playoff chase and their remaining eight games only feature three teams with losing records.

Last year’s Super Bowl run was great for the fans. This year, not so much.

PRIME TIME CHARGERS: For the second week in a row, the Chargers will be featured on the Sunday night game of the week, this time against the Kansas City Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Last week, the Chargers jumped out to a 16-10 halftime lead against the San Francisco 49ers, only to get shut out in the second half and lose, 24-16, to fall to 5-4 on the season.

The Chargers are still in the playoff hunt but they need to beat the Chiefs to keep from dropping three games back in the AFC West standings. Like most teams this time of year, the Chargers are beat up physically. They are down to three healthy defensive linemen and quarterback Justin Herbert also is having trouble finding healthy receivers to throw to.

One consolation for the Chargers is that their schedule gets easier after the Chiefs. Of their final seven opponents, only two — the Dolphins Dec. 11 and the Tennessee Titans Dec. 26 — have winnings records.

EARLY-SEASON BLUES: So far, it’s been a rough start to the NBA season for both the Clippers and the Lakers.

The Clippers hoped to have a healthy Kawhi Leonard back this season, but he has missed 13 of 15 games with stiffness in his surgically repaired knee and the Clippers seem lost without him on the court on their way to a 7-8 record.

Without Leonard, Paul George is carrying most of the load, averaging 24.4 points a game. No one else is averaging more than 15.

Coach Tyronn Lue is still searching for the right rotation, while waiting for Reggie Jackson and Norman Powell to get going offensively. Jackson is averaging 10.3 points a game; Powell 11.8.

Free agent guard John Wall is doing a good job coming off the bench, averaging 13 points and 5 assists but the Clippers need to find some consistency while waiting for Leonard to get healthy.

They currently sit ninth in the NBA Western Conference standings.

That’s considerably better than the Lakers, who have the third worst record in the league after 13 games.

The Lakers are 3-10 after defeating the Brooklyn Nets 116-103 Nov. 13 without LeBron James. Anthony Davis was huge against the Nets, scoring 37 points and pulling down 18 rebounds. If only he played like that every night.

The Lakers are showing some signs of improvement.

Lonnie Walker IV scored 25 points against the Nets and is averaging 16.5 points a game, third best behind James and Davis.

Russell Westbrook is starting to settle into his role as the leader of the second unit. He is averaging 16.3 points and 7.2 assists per game, but still takes ill-advised shots and turns the ball over too much.

Coach Darvin Ham is still experimenting with different rotations, trying to find a combination that can keep up with the better teams in the league.

He needs to get more out of starting point guard Patrick Beverley and reserve Kendrick Nunn, who was supposed to be providing more than four points a night off the bench.

April can’t get here soon enough for the Lakers.

WORLD CUP TIME: The World Cup soccer tournament begins Nov. 20 in Qatar with the U.S. men playing Wales in their first game Nov. 21.

The U.S. team includes Kellyn Acosta of the Los Angeles Football Club and Cristian Roldan of Pico Rivera, who plays for the Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer.

Both are midfielders.

The U.S. also plays England and Iran in the opening round of the tournament, which is considered by many experts to be the strongest of the eight groups. The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout stage of the tournament, which begins Dec. 3.

After missing the World Cup entirely in 2018, the U.S. is happy to be back, but needs to advance to the knockout stage to move up in the hierarchy of world soccer.

The U.S. has a young team, with the average age of its player being 23.82 years. The other 31 teams in the tournament average 27.5 years per player.

Acosta has the most international experience of the U.S. players, appearing 53 times in international play. Roldan is tied for sixth with 32 appearances for the U.S. team.

After Wales, the U.S. plays England Nov. 25 and finishes group play with Iran Nov. 29.

 

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