College Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: Rams, Chargers open season with Super Bowl hopes

Three years ago, Los Angeles didn’t have a professional football team. Now, the city not only has two football teams, it has two teams with Super Bowl aspirations.

The Rams and Chargers open the 2019 season Sept. 8 with lofty expectations.

The Rams made it all the way to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2002 last season, only to lose to the New England Patriots, 13-3.

They still have one of the best offenses in the game and one of the best defensive lines, and still appear to be the cream of the crop in the National Football Conference Western Division.

The Chargers are coming off a 12-4 season that saw them tie with the Kansas City Chiefs for the American Football Conference Western Division title with the best record in the conference.

But the Chiefs had the best record against division opponents and had a first-round bye in the playoffs, while the Chargers became a wild card team.

They defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 23-17 in the wild card round, but wound up facing the Patriots the next week and lost 41-28.

The Chargers are now a year older and hoping to have another playoff run in them. They open against the Indianapolis Colts at 1 p.m. in Dignity Health Sports Park in the last season they will share a soccer stadium with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

The Chargers will open the season with their star running back Melvin Gordon still holding out for a new contract.

Gordon gained 885 yards in 12 games last year and also caught 50 passes while scoring 14 touchdowns. He’s a solid running back to be sure but he isn’t Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley.

The Chargers have told him there will be no more negotiations until after the season, but gave Gordon’s agent permission to find a trade deal.

Until he decides to report, the Chargers will use Justin Jackson and Austin Ekeler at running back.

With veteran quarterback Philip Rivers back for his 16th year, the Chargers should continue to have one of the best offenses in the league. Rivers’ favorite target is wide receiver Keenan Allen, who caught 97 passes last year after grabbing 102 in 2017.

Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams caught 66 and 65 passes, respectively, last season to give Rivers two other outstanding options and tight end Hunter Henry is back from knee surgery to provide another weapon.

Antonio Gates has finally retired.

The Chargers line is young but growing more experienced by the year. Center Mike Pouncey is a good anchor for the rest of the line.

Defensively, the Chargers will be trying to overcome the loss of defensive back Derwin James, who broke a bone in his foot and will miss the first two months of the season at least.

A rookie safety out of Florida State last year, all James did was lead the team in tackles, passes intercepted and passes defended last year.

The Chargers can still put heat on the quarterback with defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley always puts together a stubborn unit.

The Chargers main problem is that the Kansas City Chiefs are still in their division and the Chiefs appear stacked again, with young quarterback Patrick Mahomes another year more experienced.

The Rams don’t have the same problem. Their problem will be avoiding the Super Bowl hangover that usually affects the team that lost the big game the year before.

Like last year, the Rams will score points. Quarterback Jared Goff leads a high-powered offense that features some quality wide receivers in Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.

Cooks and Woods gained more than 1,000 yard receiving each last year and Kupp would have joined them if he hadn’t missed the last eight games of the season because of a knee injury.

Running back Todd Gurley was outstanding for most of last season before hurting a knee late in the year.

He gained 1,251 yards on the year and caught 58 passes for  another 580 yards, Overall he scored 21 touchdowns. The Rams say they will give Gurley more breathers this year and hope he doesn’t wear down in the playoffs like he did last year.

The Rams have the best defensive player in the game in Aaron Donald, a great cast surrounding him and a wily veteran coach in Wade Phillips to get the most out of his players.

The Rams open on the road at Carolina at 10 a.m. It will be a good opening test for a team that is hoping to return to the Super Bowl.

BAD START: USC won its season opener, 31-23 over Fresno State Aug. 31 in the new-look Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

That was the good news. The bad news was the Trojans lost sophomore quarterback JT Daniels for the season after he was sacked late in the second quarter.

Daniels had looked impressive in the Trojans new Air Raid offense, going 13 for 14 on his first two drives that both led to touchdown.

He was replaced by freshman Keddon Slovis, who most Trojans’ fans hadn’t heard of three weeks ago.

Slovis played high school football in Arizona under the tutelage of former Rams star Kurt Warner last season. He was considered only a three-star recruit (Daniles was a five-star recruit), but he won the second-string quarterback job during training camp against more experienced competition and performed adequately enough after replacing Daniels.

He completed only six of eight passes for 57 yards with one interception in the second half, but guided the team on a third quarter touchdown drive that iced the game.

With Daniels hurt, Air Raid went back to Tailback U in the second half, with Vavae Malepeai taking over the bulk of the running back duties. He finished with 23 carries for 134 yards and a touchdown. Stephen Carr carried the ball six times for 56 yards and another touchdown.

Tyler Vaughans emerged as the Trojans leading receiver in the opener, catching 11 passes for 150 yards. Velus Jones Jr. didn’t catch any passes but he gave the Trojans a big lift in the second half with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

The Trojans gave up 10 fourth-quarter points to make the game close at the end. That might work against Fresno State but it won’t work against Stanford, who the Trojans play Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Coliseum. The Cardinal are coming off an opening week win against Northwestern.

WORSE START: UCLA probably didn’t expect to defeat the Cincinnati Bearcats in the season opener Aug. 25. After all, the Bearcats were 11-2 last year while the Bruins were 3-9.

But coach Chip Kelly had to think his team would play better than it did in a 24-14 loss. Sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson looked as lost as he did most of last year.

He completed only eight of 26 passes for 156 yards and 75 of those yards came on one play, a touchdown pass to running back Demeric Felton. Thompson-Robinson also fumbled twice without being hit and three two interceptions.

Things should get easier with the Bruins back at home in the Rose Bowl Sept. 7 for a 1:15 p.m. game against San Diego State, but the Aztecs are no slouches and the Bruins could have a tough time, unless Thompson-Robinson regains his form.

THE NEXT PHENOM: Four years ago it was Joc Pederson. Three years ago it was Corey Seager. The next year it was Cody Bellinger. Last year it was Walker Buehler.

Earlier this year it was catcher Will Smith. This week it was infielder Gavin Lux.

He is the latest prize phenom of the Dodgers farm system to reach the Major Leagues.

He arrived Sept. 2 and promptly reached on base hits his first two times at bat. He got another base hit Sept. 3 and is hitting .333 after two games.

A small sample size to be sure, but that could be the Dodgers’ starting second baseman on opening day next year.

That’s something the Dodgers have done well in recent years. They have held on to and developed their top prospects.

And that isn’t considering outfielder Alex Verdugo and Julio Urias, two more players the Dodgers have developed who could become key fixtures on the roster for years.

Now if only Andrew Friedman could find a closer.