All Ball Sports: USC fights on and on, Bruins look like Kelly’s team, Goff on, Herbert off
by Paul Teetor
So many questions. So many right answers.
Could the USC football team win a game when its best player, sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis, played awful ball for most of the game?
Could USC Coach Clay Helton guide his team to another fantastic finish over yet another unranked team it was expected to demolish? And in the process save his job once again, for at least another week?
The answer turned out to be a resounding “yes,” as the Trojans managed to outlast Arizona 34-30 Saturday afternoon in a game they were one lucky play away from losing near the end. But a Slovis pass that should have been intercepted instead went through the defender’s hands, traveled another five yards, and landed right into the hands of emerging star Drake London to set up a late touchdown.
That fortunate tipped pass was just one in a series of late-game plays that enabled the Trojans to come from behind – twice – and snatch a last second victory from the iron jaws of defeat — for the second week in a row after their 28-27 miracle win over Arizona State last week.
“We’re fortunate to get out of here with a win,” Helton said after the game, in what has to be the understatement of the year – so far.
This was a game that showcased the many reasons for all the constant complaints about Helton’s coaching: undisciplined play leading to costly penalties, crazy play calling at the exact wrong times, and a refusal to tweak the game plan or adjust on the fly, no matter what the problem is.
Exhibit A: Helton’s repeated refusal to put his quarterback, Slovis, under center in short-yardage situations near the goal line. Instead he insisted on having Slovis set up in a shotgun formation, taking the snap 5 yards behind center. So what would be a fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2 situation instead turned into, for all practical purposes, fourth-and-six or fourth-and-seven. It removed any possibility of a quarterback sneak or a running back plunge through a momentary gap in the defensive line.
This bad coaching and refusal to change tactics and schemes according to the dynamics of the situation hurt the Trojans late in the third quarter and again in the fourth. First, tied at 20-20, Slovis drove USC to the Arizona one-yard line. But two monumentally dumb penalties in a row – false start and then delay of game – pushed them back to the 11-yard line, forcing a chip shot field goal try that should have given them a 23-20 lead. Instead freshman kicker Parker Lewis shanked it wide right and the game remained tied.
A few minutes later, early in the fourth quarter after Arizona had taken a 23-20 lead, Slovis drove the Trojans downfield again to within five yards of a TD. This time, powerful runner Markese Stepp was sent into the heart of the defensive line and was stopped short on fourth down.
Bottom line: Two drives that should have been TDs and 14 points turned into zero points.
Early in the fourth quarter Arizona had kicked a 51-yard field goal for a 23-20 lead and appeared headed for a major upset. But Slovis, suddenly warming up after looking unsteady and off-target for most of the game, connected on 10 consecutive passes and found tight end EriK Krommenhoek for a 6-yard TD pass and a 27-23 lead.
Arizona’s sophomore QB, Grant Gunnell, who had shredded the Trojan defense all day, including a 75-yard TD pass, did it again and hit Stanley Berryhill for a 6-yard TD pass and a 30-27 lead.
That put the onus back on USC and Slovis, who hit 13 of his final 15 passes at just the right time. They got the ball back with a minute and 35 seconds left, needing to travel 75 yards for a game winning touchdown.
Now the hidden strength of USC’s offense – its deep receiving corps consisting of Tyler Vaughns, Drake London, 5-star recruit Bru McCoy and definite future pro Amon-Ra St. Brown — emerged and made it possible for the suddenly-hot Slovis to pull off another miracle finish. The last play was a handoff to Vavae Malepeai, who took it in for an 8-yard TD with just 25 seconds left.
And that was that, as the porous-all-day USC defense rose up and prevented Gunnell from pulling off a miracle finish of his own.
USC moved to 2-0 on the pandemic-shortened season, a record that just as easily could be 0-2. They’re undefeated but nowhere even close to being invited to play in a College Football Playoff game.
Slovis, who for most of the game looked as bad as he ever has since taking over from the injured and since departed J.T. Daniels at the start of last season, acknowledged his struggles but said he would repair them before the Trojans travel to Utah next Saturday for a nationally televised game on ESPN.
“I think at times my mechanics get sloppy,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but I’ll get it fixed next week.”
As it was, his hot fourth quarter enabled him to pile up 325 passing yards as he hit on 30 of 43 passes.
Gunnell, who set all kinds of records playing in Texas as a high schooler, finished with 286 yards and one interception. He will be a problem for USC and the rest of the PAC-12 in the next few years.
Hungry Bruins Gobble up Cal
UCLA leveled its record at 1-1 with a 34-10 win over Cal at an eerily empty Rose Bowl. Coach Chip Kelly, whom UCLA over-paid to come here and try to match his success at Oregon after he flamed out in the NFL, finally fielded a Bruin team that, for the first time, played like his high-octane, fast tempo Oregon teams. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson – aka DTR – was a blur all game with 52 yards rushing on top of 196 yards passing. He accounted for four TD’s – one rushing and three passing – and often resembled Marcus Mariota, the former Oregon star under Kelly who is now a backup in the NFL.
If the Bruins can keep up this style of play and add some more convincing wins, Bruin fans will quickly forget that Kelly’s first two years in LA were a complete flop — and that he seemed more interested in putting on a lavish dinner spread at the training table than getting his players in shape. The byword in college athletics, as always, is simple: What have you done for me lately?
Rams, Goff back on track to make playoffs
The Rams badly needed Sunday’s convincing 23-16 win over a very good Seattle Seahawks team and its MVP candidate, quarterback Russell Wilson. Rams QB Jared Goff, who thoroughly outplayed Wilson, needed it even more.
Goff played his best game of the season after playing his worst game of the season two weeks ago in a horrendous two interception, two fumble 28-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
But after a week off to get his head straight and rest his bruised body, Goff looked like the Goff of two years ago. That was when he led the Rams to the Super Bowl, was named to the Pro Bowl, and inspired Rams fans to believe they now had a franchise quarterback who would make their team championship contenders each and every year for the foreseeable future.
The Rams – and Goff – came back to earth last season with a loud thud, missing the playoffs entirely with a 9-7 record.
But in Sunday’s win they may have found a winning formula going forward. First, replace since-departed superstar running back Todd Gurley with a 3-headed monster consisting of Malcolm Brown, Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson. They each have different styles and strengths. Second, rely on their dominant defense, led by lineman Aaron Donald, defensive back Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Leonard Floyd, who is emerging as one of the best edge-rushers in the league, to shut down offensive stars like Wilson and his future all-pro rookie wide receiver DK Metcalf.
Third, and most important, use Goff in an efficient manner that takes advantage of his strengths – intelligence in reading defenses, quick release of the football on short and medium passes, and just enough firepower to connect on long bombs when the defense starts to put eight or even nine players up in the box.
Conversely, Coach Sean McVay is learning how to disguise Goff’s weaknesses – limited mobility and a good-but-not-great arm. It appears that McVay is accepting that Goff is what the numbers say he is: the 20th ranked QB in the league. That makes him good enough to be a starting NFL QB on a winning team, but not good enough to carry a team by himself. McVay, the best offensive coach in the league, is known as a QB whisperer for good reason.
It all added up to Goff connecting on 27 of his 37 passes for 302 yards and no interceptions.
One ominous note: Andrew Whitworth, who has anchored the offensive line for the past five seasons, was carted off the field with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. It didn’t affect the outcome of this game, but could have serious consequences in the coming weeks. Perhaps even next week, when the Rams play 7-3 Tampa Bay and Tom Brady on Monday Night Football.
The win raised the Rams record to 6-3, while dropping the Seahawks to an identical 6-3. Given that they both play in the NFC West, the best conference in football, the win was imperative for them to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Chargers stumble on
It had to happen sooner or later. Justin Herbert had a bad game Sunday in the Chargers 28-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Well, maybe not bad by ordinary standards, but bad by his extraordinary standards established over the first half of his record-setting rookie year.
It was his first semi-clunker after seven straight great games in which he piled up more yardage than any rookie quarterback since they started keeping records in 1950.
His team, however, went 1-6 in those same seven games, revealing serious problems in almost every aspect of the game – running, catching and playing defense. Still, Herbert stood out in such a bright, shining way that there was growing hope he could lift his struggling teammates up to his weekly level of excellence.
Instead, Sunday’s loss was a good example of his coach and teammates dragging him down to their level. He threw a damaging interception that led to a Dolphin score and hit on 20 of 32 passes for 187 yards and one interception.
There’s a long history in the NFL of talented rookie quarterbacks being drafted by terrible teams and getting dragged down in the team’s dysfunction and ineptitude. For recent evidence simply look back 3 years when USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen – the pride of Manhattan Beach – were both top 10 draft picks, Darnold at number three by the New York Jets and Rosen at 10th by the Arizona Cardinals.
Darnold had some initial success, but has since been plagued by injuries and is now sitting behind starter Joe Flacco. Rosen had no initial success, was traded after one season, and is now on the Miami Dolphins practice squad.
Let’s hope Herbert is not dragged down by the Chargers bad roster, bad coaching and bad karma in a similar manner.
Say a Little Prayer for Tommy Lasorda
Dodgers fans were forced to take a break Sunday from savoring the recent World Series win when news broke that 93-year-old Tommy Lasorda was in the intensive care unit at an Orange County Hospital with heart problems. Lasorda, one of the best and longest tenured Dodger managers ever with 20 years calling the shots in the dugout, guided the boys in blue to their last WS win in 1988 and to the often-overlooked title of 1981. Off the field, he had been the face of the Dodgers for the last three decades, a goodwill ambassador attending every charity event, community event and Dodgers celebration held anywhere in the LA Basin, including Skechers Pier to Pier Friendship Walk in Manhattan Beach. He will have millions of people praying that it is not yet his time to go to Blue Heaven. And if it is, well, at least he got to see what he – and so many others – had hoped for for the last 32 years.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow: @paulteetor
by Jen Ezpeleta