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Not just footballs are deflated at USC

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Not just footballs are deflated at USC

LOS ANGELES (AP) It's not just the game balls that are deflated at Southern California this fall.

An unimpressive season reached a new, weird low late Wednesday night when No. 21 USC announced a student manager had been dismissed for underinflating several game balls before the Trojans' loss to No. 2 Oregon last weekend, earning a fine and a reprimand for the school from the Pac-12.

Coach Lane Kiffin then spent a soggy Thursday morning on campus explaining why the Trojans' latest brush with questionable tactics was an isolated misdeed by an overeager student, not an indication of a somewhat sleazy culture building around a program still attempting to emerge from the clouds of heavy NCAA sanctions in 2010.

``I was just disappointed, because it was just a distraction,'' Kiffin said. ``It was a distraction that nobody knew about here, that had no effect on the game. If anything, it had a negative effect to be throwing two different types of balls for a quarterback. I was just disappointed, because it was a distraction that we didn't need.''

Kiffin is telling the truth: With two straight losses, the preseason No. 1 team can't afford to waste much thought for anything other than the salvage of its season. USC (6-3, 4-3 Pac-12) hosts Arizona State (5-4, 3-3) on Saturday before finishing against No. 17 UCLA and No. 4 Notre Dame, hoping to earn a probable rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.

Kiffin insists his coaching staff and quarterback Matt Barkley knew nothing about the manager's actions on the Oregon sideline, where officials apparently discovered three underinflated balls before the game and two more at halftime. Kiffin offered no thoughts about the possible motivation of the unidentified manager, saying he hadn't spoken to the student.

USC athletic director Pat Haden, who took over the department after Kiffin was hired nearly three years ago, was obviously unhappy about the embarrassment.

``We acknowledge the Pac-12's reprimand and fine,'' Haden said in a statement released through Twitter. ``We regret this incident occurred. It was unacceptable and we apologize for it. I can assure you this will not happen again.''

Deflating footballs is an uncommon - but not unfamiliar - bit of gamesmanship on many levels of football. Softer balls are thought to be a bit easier to throw and catch - and that's exactly what the Ducks did while racking up 730 yards during a 62-51 win over USC, which had the worst defensive game ever at a school that began playing football in the 19th century.

Kiffin said he realizes ``conspiracy theories ... will think we were behind this,'' but thinks the lack of an obvious advantage to be gained from the tactic - and the sloppy manner in which it happened - should prove the innocence of his coaches and players.

``I don't think if we were trying to deflate balls, we would be directing a student manager on the Oregon sideline, right in front of them, to be deflating balls, and then playing with some deflated and some non-deflated balls,'' Kiffin said. ``I'm sure if we knew that, our kickers wouldn't have been happy with that, either. No kicker is ever going to happy with a deflated ball.''

While Kiffin claimed he didn't hear about the officials' discovery until Sunday, Oregon coach Chip Kelly told SiriusXM's College Sports Nation channel Thursday he heard about it after the game.

``It doesn't affect us,'' Kelly said. ``I mean, we worry every day, or are concerned with every day, of what we can control and what we can't control, and what other teams do doesn't really affect what we're doing.''

USC announced the Pac-12's fine and reprimand late Wednesday night, well after every member of the program except Kiffin is done talking to the media for the week. Barkley and his offensive teammates only speak to reporters for a few moments on Tuesday mornings - another part of a strict policy on injury reporting and media access instituted by Kiffin this season, ending USC's tradition of famously open practices and Kiffin's own largely cordial relationship with Los Angeles media before the last few months.

While Kiffin has been fairly successful on the field, particularly given the Trojans' NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations, the underinflated footballs are just the latest minor misstep adding up to a potentially major problem. Kiffin's apparent predilections for cutthroat competition and gamesmanship have followed him from USC to the Oakland Raiders to Tennessee and back again.

Last month, USC backup quarterback Cody Kessler took off his No. 6 jersey and put on No. 35 while playing on special teams against Colorado, even running for a 2-point conversion attempt with the new jersey. Players are allowed to wear different jerseys for many reasons during games, but it's widely considered deceptive, if not unethical, to change numbers during a game specifically to confuse an opponent.

USC also is still the FBS' most penalized team with 85 penalties for 702 yards, even after a relatively clean game against Oregon. The Trojans counter that they were a mostly clean team last season, and that the Pac-12 has seven of FBS' 16 most-penalized teams, perhaps indicating more about the conference's officiating crews than the schools' play.

But after USC's latest brush against propriety, even Kiffin acknowledged it's fair to wonder whether his staff has created a culture of moral relativism, where a student might deflate footballs on his own just to try to gain an advantage.

``I don't believe that at all,'' he said. ``I believe this was a very isolated incident that had nothing to do with the coaches or the players on this team.''

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Need to Know: Five players who are wild cards for the 2018 Redskins

Need to Know: Five players who are wild cards for the 2018 Redskins

Here is what you need to know on this Thursday, April 19, seven days before the 2018 NFL draft.  

Five wild cards for the 2018 Redskins

We know what to expect out of many members of the Redskins. Ryan Kerrigan will register between 10 and 13 sacks. Zach Brown will be among the league leaders in tackles. Jamison Crowder will compile about 800 yards receiving. But we really don’t know what to expect out of a lot of the players expected to play key roles. Here are five of them.

S Montae Nicholson—Although most of the uncertainty surrounding Nicholson is about his health, we really don’t know what he can do over a full season. Sure, he looked good in the six games he played last year but opposing offenses did not have much of a chance to probe his weaknesses. If he stays healthy, his ability to adjust to what the offenses are doing against him will be the next phase of his development. 

CB Fabian Moreau—As a rookie, he was impressive as a punt team gunner, but he got very limited playing time on defense (59 snaps, only seven after Week 5). The Redskins will be counting on him stepping into a bigger role after the departures of Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller. He has the tools but we won’t know how well he can handle the job until he gets extended playing time. 

WR Maurice Harris—Last year he went from spectacular to invisible in a hurry. He made a sensational catch for 36 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings the first time he was targeted. In five games after that, he had just three receptions for 26 yards. Should he have had more playing time (76 snaps)? Or did he just not earn more targets? The real Maurice Harris should come to the forefront in 2018.

NT Phil Taylor—You know the story here. He was looking great in training camp until a quad injury sidelined him for the season. Taylor is healthy enough for the Redskins to give him another chance but this is a player who has not taken the field since November of 2014. We simply don’t know what to expect out of him even if he does make into Week 1 in good health. 

RB Samaje Perine—His play improved as the year went on but he wasn’t good enough to keep both Jay Gruden and Doug Williams from saying that running back is a draft need. Ideally, he shares carries with the probable draft pick with a few going to Chris Thompson and they combine to rush for 1,800 yards. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS.

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Timeline  

Days until:

—OTAs start (5/22) 33
—Training camp starts (7/26) 98
—2018 NFL season starts (9/9) 143

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Nationals fall after Mets score 9 runs in 8th inning

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Nationals fall after Mets score 9 runs in 8th inning

NEW YORK -- Yoenis Cespedes launched a grand slam during a nine-run outburst in the eighth inning that rallied the New York Mets past the Washington Nationals 11-5 on Wednesday night, preventing a three-game sweep.

Todd Frazier tied it at 4 with a two-run single and pinch-hitter Juan Lagares put New York ahead for the first time with a two-run double off ineffective setup man Ryan Madson (0-2).

Shut down by Tanner Roark for seven innings, the first-place Mets broke loose in the eighth and improved to 13-4 with a stirring victory against their NL East rivals.

Ryan Zimmerman homered twice, tripled and drove in four runs for the Nationals, who pulled off their own big comeback in the eighth inning of the series opener.

Two nights later, New York returned the favor.

Roark limited the Mets to two hits and left leading 4-2. Michael Conforto, Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera singled off Madson to load the bases with nobody out in the eighth. Jay Bruce fouled out before Frazier smacked a two-run single up the middle and advanced to second on the throw home.

After an intentional walk to Adrian Gonzalez loaded the bases again, pinch-hitter Wilmer Flores struck out. Lagares then lined a two-run double the other way, just inside the right-field line at the outer edge of the infield grass, to put the Mets up 6-4.

Sammy Solis walked Amed Rosario and Conforto to force in a run. Cespedes connected for his sixth career slam -- the third by the Mets already this season -- off A.J. Cole, sending fans into a frenzy.

Both of Cespedes' hits in the inning came on 0-2 pitches.

AJ Ramos (1-1) worked a perfect inning for his first win with the Mets since being acquired from Miami last July.

Howie Kendrick reached on an infield single for Washington in the first and Bryce Harper drew his 24th walk, most in the majors. Zimmerman, batting .121 at that point and struggling to make opponents pay for bypassing Harper, came through with a drive to left-center off Steven Matz for his second home run of the season.

Matz steadied himself after a 33-pitch first inning and retired his final 10 batters. He was pulled for a pinch hitter in the fourth after throwing 74 pitches.

Cabrera doubled to open the fourth and scored on Gonzalez's single. Zimmerman had a chance to start an inning-ending double play, but his throwing error from first base allowed another run to score on Jose Lobaton's RBI grounder as the Mets cut it to 3-2.

After Mets pitchers retired 16 in a row, Zimmerman's leadoff triple in the seventh got past a diving Bruce in right field, and Moises Sierra followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-2.

Zimmerman also hit a solo homer in the ninth.