SPORTS DIGEST: USC, UCLA Find Themselves in Early-Season Hole

By Don Wanlass

Who would have predicted after three weeks of the college football season that the two Los Angeles teams would have a combined one victory?

Yes, the USC Trojans’ 43-21 victory over Nevada Las Vegas Sept. 1 is all the Trojans and Bruins have to show after three games.

After losing a tough defensive fight against Stanford Sept. 8, the Trojans traveled to Austin, Texas, Sept. 15 for a test against Texas that was supposed to tell the Trojans where they stood entering Pac 12 play this week against Washington State. Well the Trojans flunked their Texas test miserably.

After taking a 14-3 first quarter lead, the Trojans were outscored 34-0 over the final three quarters in a 37-14 loss that have Trojans alumni and fans calling for the head of offensive coordinator Tee Martin.

Martin can share some of the blame for the game, since the Trojans never scored after putting up 14 quick points against the Longhorns, but the Trojans were equally bad on defense and special teams as well.

And this was a Texas team whose fan base was ready to jump ship after Maryland scored a 34-29 upset win in the opening week of the season.

Whatever their problems were in the opener, the Longhorns seemed to have solved them against the Trojans.

The Trojans couldn’t run the ball, recording minus 5 yards rushing in 16 attempts. Three of those were sacks of quarterback JT Daniels for minus 26 yards.

Daniels provided most of the Trojans offense, completing 30 of 48 passes for 322 yards and one interception. Daniels’s former Mater Dei High teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown grabbed nine passes for 167 yards, but those were the two best offensive performers of the day.

The running back trio of Stephen Carr, Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malpeai combined for 12 carries for 24 yards. That is not going to get it done in the Pac 12 and that stat is the reason more and more Trojan fans are angry at Martin, the offensive play caller.

The Trojans may have lost the game in a sequence of the second quarter when Carr was tackled for a loss on fourth-and-goal inside the 2 yard line. The Trojan defense stiffened and almost got a safety when quarterback Sam Ehlinger got trapped in the end zone.

The officials ruled that Ehlinger barely got out of the end zone before being tackled and a replay failed to provide enough visual evidence to give the Trojans a safety. On fourth down, the Trojans just missed blocking the punt and were called for roughing the kicker, giving the Longhorns 15 yards and a first down. The Trojans never came close to scoring again.

As bad as the running game was for the Trojans, the defense was just as bad. Ehlinger passed for 223 yards and gained another 35 yards on read option plays, several which kept drives going. Tre Watson and Daniel Young both averaged more than 4 yards a carry for the Longhorns.

On special teams, the Trojans had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown and averaged only 31 yards on six punts, which kept leaving Texas in good field position.

The Trojans need to solve their many problems quick because Washington State comes to town for a Friday night game this week with a 2-1 record.

The Trojans would be wise to revisit their running game. As good as Daniels has been as a freshman quarterback, he will be a lot better if the Trojans can run the ball effectively.

Carr, who has suffered from shoulder and back injuries in his two years at USC, is running like he expects to get hurt again. Give Ware or Malepeai more opportunities to see if either one can become a go-to back.

Otherwise it’s going to be a long season at USC.

Back in 1971, the UCLA Bruins went 2-7-1. Pepper Rodgers had replaced Tommy Prothro as coach. Prothro liked to throw the ball, Rodgers liked to run the option, which was just coming into popularity in the college game.

The Bruins bounced back from 2-7-1 to go 8-3 in 1972 and 9-2 in 1973 as Rodgers installed his new offense.

That may be all the Bruins have to look forward to this year.

Obviously, Jim Mora’s recruits are not very good at running Chip Kelly’s offense. The Bruins are 0-3 after being thumped by Fresno State, 38-14 Sept. 15 at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins managed to make it close in the third quarter, trailing only 16-14 before Fresno State scored the last 22 points.

Freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was ineffective most of the night, completing only 10 of 24 passes for 151 yards while throwing two interceptions.

The Bruins still haven’t gotten all the bugs out of Kelly’s offense. They only gained 119 yards on the ground, led by Thompson-Robinson’s 49 in eight carries.

Thompson-Robinson’s dad, Michael Robinson, took to Twitter to complain about Kelly, saying the Bruins suffered from “lousy coaching and play calling” and calling Kelly’s four successful years at Oregon “simply a fluke.”

He ended the tweet with “just random observations from a frustrated dad,” but many Bruins’ fans feel his frustration.

The Bruins are off this week, preparing to face Colorado Sept. 28. If Kelly can’t get it fixed during the bye week, the Bruins may be looking at 1971 all over again.

BATTLE FOR L.A.: For the first time since they both moved back to Los Angeles, the Rams face the Chargers this week, with the game at 1 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The Rams are 2-0 and appear to have picked up where they left off last year as the highest scoring team in the NFL.

The Chargers are 1-1, coming off a win over the Buffalo Bills.

If nothing else, the game is for bragging rights. The Chargers veteran quarterback Philip Rivers might want to show the Rams’ third-year star Jared Goff what a veteran can do. You also have battles between running backs Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon and the Chargers wide receiving corps against the Rams secondary..

It also will be interesting to see who has the most fans at the Coliseum.

The Chargers don’t want to start the season 1-2, but the Rams might be too strong a team for the Chargers right now, especially with Joey Bosa missing from the Chargers’ defensive line.

BACK ON TOP: As I write this, the Dodgers lead the Colorado Rockies by a game and a half in the National league West with 10 games remaining.

You have to like the Dodgers’ chances this late in the season, especially because they have won the last five division titles.

The Dodgers played a huge series in St Louis last weekend, winning three of four games and moving past the Cardinals in the wild card race, if it comes down to that.

Manager Dave Roberts has apparently settled on a four-man starting rotation for the playoffs that will include Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling and Alex Wood have been moved to the bullpen, which has strengthened that part of the team; and the Dodgers are starting to hit like we knew they could.

In other words, the Dodgers are peaking at the right time. Will it last? We shall see next week when they close the season with three games against the Arizona Diamondbacks and the final three in San Francisco.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Wave Newspapers

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