College Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: UCLA needs to beat USC again to regain relevance

The caller wasn’t happy. In a voice message, he wanted to know why I didn’t show UCLA football any love.

Apparently he missed the three paragraphs I gave the Bruins two weeks ago after they defeated Colorado, 31-14 Nov. 2, giving UCLA three wins in a row and making them almost relevant again.

The day after the phone message the Bruins went out and laid an egg against Utah Nov. 16, getting blown out 49-3 and forcing the Bruins to win their last two games against USC and Cal to even think about getting a bowl bid.

I haven’t shown the Bruins much love this year because they don’t deserve much love. I do consider the Bruins the fourth most popular football team in Los Angeles, placing them ahead of the Chargers but behind the Raiders, Trojans and Rams.

UCLA wants to be one of the big boys, but they will always be the “gutty little Bruins” playing second fiddle to USC, even when they win the big game against the Trojans like they did last year, 34-27.

In that game, running back Josh Kelley ran wild, rolling up 289 yards rushing, the most gained by any back in the USC-UCLA rivalry that dates back to the 1930s and includes great running backs from both teams.

Kelley will need to duplicate that effort if the Bruins are going to win a second game in a row over USC and keep their thin bowl hopes alive.

Against Utah last week, the Bruins were leading 7-0 and looked ready to extend that lead when quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson turned into a turnover machine. Thompson-Robinson threw two interceptions and fumbled twice and Utah showed why it is the seventh ranked team in the nation.

Utah is now on top of the Pac 12 South with games remaining against Arizona and Colorado, the fifth and sixth teams in the division.

USC needs a win against the Bruins to keep its faint hopes of winning the Pac 12 South alive, to enhance the bowl bid that it clinched last week with a win over Cal and to make new athletic director Mike Bohn’s decision on what to do with head coach Clay Helton tougher.

Most of the USC fan base wants Helton gone and Urban Meyer hired to replace him. Helton doesn’t have the “it” factor Trojan fans like in their head coaches.

Of course there are only three coaches in the last 60 years that have had the “it” factor: John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll. All three also won national championships. That’s the “it” factor important to USC fans.

 The Trojans handed Utah its only loss of the season back in September, when third-string quarterback Matt Fink threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Trojans.

Utah outgained the Trojans that day and possessed the ball for more than 38 minutes, but the Trojans defense made the Utes settle for field goals twice and recorded a crucial safety in the fourth quarter after Utah had pulled within 21-20.

Following the free kick after the safety, the Trojans marched 69 yards in five plays, with Markese Stepp going the last four yards for a touchdown that made it 30-21 with seven minutes to play.

The Utes drove to the USC 20, but had to settle for a field goal and the Trojans escaped with a win.

The Trojans hope to do more than escape with a win this week. They want revenge from last year’s loss and Helton wants to do everything he can to save his job.

Getting his players to play a good, mistake-free game that results in a win will make some of the fans happy. There’s no pleasing the rest of them.

But if Bohn and new college President Carol Folt want to ignore the noise from the alumni and judge Helton on his ability and merits, they need to see the Trojans play a game without committing stupid unsportsmanlike conduct or personal foul penalties.

The Trojans have more talent than the Bruins, although they are still weak at the running back position due to injuries.

Back in 2013, USC fired Lane Kiffin and promoted a former assistant to be interim coach, like they did with Helton in 2015.

That interim coach did a solid job coaching the Trojans through the rest of the season and desperately wanted to be given the job as permanent coach.

Instead athletic director Pat Haden hired Steve Sarkisian and Ed Orgeron moved on to Louisiana State University. In 2016, LSU fired Les Miles and appointed Orgeron its interim coach.

The Louisiana native is now the head coach of the No. 1 team in the country.

In a lot of ways, Helton reminds me of Orgeron. Both are players’ coaches who would rather be with their players than with the alumni and boosters. Neither actively seeks the limelight and neither could beat Notre Dame.

That last one could be the biggest reason Helton probably won’t be back next year. A second loss in a row to UCLA would definitely seal Helton’s fate.

Neither, he nor his players wants that to happen, which is why the Trojans will beat the Bruins Nov. 23 in the Coliseum.

Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. and the game will air on Channel 7.

LOAD MANAGEMENT: Kawhi Leonard has a valuable commodity — his body — and he is doing whatever he can to make sure that body stays healthy so he can earn $30 million or more a year playing basketball for a living.

That’s why Leonard has missed five of the Los Angeles Clippers’ first 14 games this season. He missed 22 games with the Toronto Raptors last season, most of them because of what he calls load management. He is managing the load his body takes on playing basketball.

The Raptors had no trouble when Leonard sat out last year. They were 17-5 in the games he missed. So far, the Clippers are 2-3 when Leonard sits.

But the Clippers are still getting used to Leonard and forward Paul George, who missed the first 11 games of the season because of offseason shoulder surgery.

Leonard and George still haven’t played together as Clippers. Leonard was averaging 26 points a game without George. George is averaging 29 points per game without Leonard.

And they aren’t the only offensive weapons the Clippers have.

It’s a nice problem for coach Doc Rivers to have. All Rivers has to do is juggle his lineups enough to keep Leonard and George healthy into the playoffs and take things from there.

Right now, the Clippers have the fourth best record in the NBA Western Conference. They want to keep that position to ensure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Leonard showed everyone last season he is capable of carrying a team in the playoffs. With George (and Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell) he won’t have to do as much heavy lifting this season.

MAKE OR BREAK: The Rams have a super important game this week against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night football.

The Rams are 5-4 after defeating the Chicago Bears Nov. 17, but they trail the San Francisco 49ers by three games in the NFC West standings and are also two games behind the Seattle Seahawks.

They also trail the Minnesota Vikings in the wild card race by 1 ½ games and have a difficult schedule coming up against the 49ers, Seahawks and Dalls Cowboys after the Ravens.

The Ravens are 8-2 under second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is having a most valuable player-type season.

Jackson is playing like the Heisman Trophy winner he was back in 2016, running and passing the ball. He is making the Ravens’ front office look like geniuses for unloading former quarterback Joe Flacco in the offseason.

The Rams played a stellar defensive game last week against the Bears. They will need another one Monday night and Jackson is no Mitch Trubisky.

Rams coach Sean McVay apparently remembered the best way to use running back Todd Gurley, who had his best game of the season against the Bears.

The Rams will need to control the ball on offense to keep Jackson off the field.