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Road-weary USC hopes to get sharper at home

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Road-weary USC hopes to get sharper at home

LOS ANGELES (AP) After traipsing from the humid New Jersey swamps to rain-soaked Seattle over the past few weeks, Matt Barkley is awfully grateful to be back in the Southern California sunshine.

With a travel-heavy first half of the year finally behind them, the No. 11 Trojans (5-1, 3-1 Pac-12) will leave Los Angeles just once for the rest of the regular season, which begins with Saturday's visit from lowly Colorado. USC doesn't blame the schedule for its unintimidating performances thus far, but it's clear the preseason's No. 1 team probably will benefit from the comforts of home.

``Seems like we've been away for a long time,'' Barkley said. ``You don't hear guys talk about it, but I think you'll see it in the next couple of games. We don't like to think it affects us, but being back at the Coliseum will be a big help.''

Although the Trojans have hardly been the juggernaut many expected, Barkley and his teammates believe their lofty goals are still achievable if they settle into a flow of strong play after a disjointed month since their only loss at Stanford. With a relatively healthy roster and motivation to land a big destination for their first bowl game since 2009, the Trojans realize they'll need four strong performances at the Coliseum during visits from Colorado, Oregon, Arizona State and Notre Dame over the next six weeks.

USC, which was No. 10 in the first BCS standings, had just one home game in a 48-day stretch between its season opener and Saturday. By comparison, Oregon has been on the road just once - and it was only a trip to Seattle for a neutral-site game with Washington State.

``We've been in a very weird rhythm, with the bye and all the road games,'' coach Lane Kiffin said. ``But now we've got six Saturday games in a row, most of them at home. It's nice to be in the rhythm of being in your own hotel (before games) and not having to get on a plane. ... We're just relieved to make it through not just four road games, but the long trip back East, the preseason hype, everything.''

The Trojans went back to work on campus this week with hopes of finding that rhythm, which has eluded them so far. USC has won three straight games since that seven-point loss to the Cardinal, but the Trojans haven't beaten anybody impressively since their season opener, content to grind out ugly victories that have left their fans wondering why a talent-loaded team isn't flattening everything in its path.

``We knew every game would be even tougher this year,'' said All-American receiver Robert Woods, who has 36 catches for 360 yards and five touchdowns. ``Whenever another team plays USC, they're going to treat it like their biggest game. Every week we have to be prepared for that.''

Yet the Trojans aren't handling it perfectly: USC leads the FBS with an average of 10 penalties per game, and the spate of road games can't be the only explanation. The Trojans also are 112th of 120 teams in third down efficiency, an improbable development for a team with their wealth of offensive talent.

That talent has been offset by deficiencies in other areas. USC still hasn't decided on a starting left tackle midway through the season, with Kiffin re-opening the competition this week between Max Tuerk and Aundrey Walker, the Trojans' most-penalized player.

USC didn't bank many style points during its road trips to Washington, Utah, Stanford and East Rutherford, N.J., to face Syracuse. Their 13-point win over the Orange was the only thing close to a blowout, and the Trojans are back home after a pair of workmanlike 10-point wins over the Utes and Huskies.

Barkley's Heisman Trophy chances are waning with each week, yet the senior leaves little doubt he would gladly skip a trip to New York in December for the chance to play in Miami or Pasadena in January.

``Defenses have tried to play us different ways over the last couple of weeks, knowing our passing attack,'' Barkley said with a shrug after going 10 for 20 for 167 yards at Washington. ``We've been running the ball tremendously well. It's team-first.''

Colorado's visit would seem to provide a perfect opportunity for Barkley, Woods and Marqise Lee to show off before the Trojans travel to Arizona for their only remaining out-of-town game. Kiffin won't promise any offensive fireworks, sticking to his determination to keep banking wins with a steady running game and a defense that has been better than many expected.

The Trojans are hoping those beauty-pageant victories just happen naturally when they're in front of their 90,000 fans.

``We need to get in front of our fans and get some momentum going,'' safety T.J. McDonald said. ``We're finally home now. This is our chance to do that.''

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Stanley Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: Are the stars aligning for another Capitals Cup run?

Stanley Cup Playoffs Power Rankings: Are the stars aligning for another Capitals Cup run?

Let’s get one thing straight: There are no easy roads to a Stanley Cup. Capitals fans know that better than most after seeing their team dominate the regular season just to get upset in the first or second round of the playoffs for several years. Having said that, seeing Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Winnipeg all lose in the first round, it seems like things are setting up very nicely for Washington.

The Caps should have one thing and one thing only on their minds on Monday and that is the Carolina Hurricanes. Washington still needs one more win to advance and they should not catch themselves looking ahead to possible future matchups.

But we can look ahead.

The top seeds in both conferences have been eliminated in the first round for the first time. Long-time nemesis Pittsburgh is out. Either Boston or Toronto will soon be joining them plus there is a possibility that both Nashville and San Jose could still lose as well.

This is not meant to discount any of the teams the Caps could still play. Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders swept the Penguins and earned a spot in the second round. He has proven his worth as a coach and his team is going to be incredibly tough for anyone to score on, let alone beat. The Columbus Blue Jackets jumped out to a 2-0 series lead on Washington last season and got better this year as they showed Tampa Bay with a four-game sweep. Whoever comes out of the West no doubt will be a great team as well.

But if you were to draw up the best-case scenario for the Caps through the first round, having Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Winnipeg all lose would likely be part of that scenario.

The Cup is truly up for grabs. This is true every year in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it is especially true this year. If the Hurricanes find a way to win Game 6 and shock the Caps in Game 7, we are going to look back at this season as a missed opportunity considering the number of contenders ousted in the first round.

SEE THIS WEEK’S STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few recent observations and thoughts on the Caps.

  • The Caps are, at their core, a physical team. That is how they ultimately find success and they went away from that earlier in the series, especially in Games 3 and 4. When they reestablished it in Game 5, they blew the Hurricanes away. Any team can play well for one game. Any team can respond after losing a really good player for one game. The real test is to see how they play in Raleigh where they were beaten so thoroughly and the offense was held to only a single power play goal and zero 5-on-5 production.
  • If you want to know why physical play still matters in today’s NHL, watch Brett Connolly’s Game 5 goal again. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton is in a footrace with Alex Ovechkin to get the puck behind Carolina’s net and he completely gives up on the play. He does not go into the boards and put himself in a position to get checked by Ovechkin. It looked like he thought the play would be called icing, but if you’re not 100-percent sure you need to get to that puck even if it means taking a hit. Hamilton looked like he wanted no part of that which allowed Ovechkin to get the puck and set up a goal.
  • The Caps may finally have settled on defensive pairings. The defense has been a work in progress ever since Michal Kempny’s injury, but Todd Reirden may have finally found three pairs he can stick with. After making his playoff debut in Game 4, Jonas Siegenthaler played on the top defensive pair with John Carlson on Saturday. We have seen Reirden mix and match his defensive pairs throughout games, but things stuck in Game 5 as Siegenthaler and Carlson played 11:19 together at 5-on-5. The most Carlson played with any other defenseman at 5-on-5 during the game was 51 seconds. I asked Reirden afterward if he felt he had found his top defensive pair and he remained non-committal saying he still would mix and match as needed depending on the situation, but the numbers speak for themselves. Siegenthaler is a defensively responsible player, he has not looked rattled at all by the forecheck and, perhaps most importantly, he’s a left-handed shot allowing Carlson to play on his natural right side. I like the look of this pair a lot.
  • Nick Jensen has had a rough series. In fact, it looks like it has been a rough transition from Detroit to Washington since he was acquired. That’s OK. Sometimes players take time to adjust to a new team and a new system, but because of that, it benefits the Caps more to have him play on the third pair than the top, especially if moving him up means playing with Carlson on the left. That’s a lot to ask. With Siegenthaler up top, Jensen moved back down to the third pair on Saturday and it was easily his best game of the series. Pairing him with Brooks Orpik allows Jensen to step more into the offense, an area of the game in which his skills are greatly underrated. Jensen looked good on both ends of the ice in Game 5 and was particularly strong on the penalty kill. He can be a top-four defenseman, but I am not sure he is ready for that type of role in Washington yet. He is a definite asset on the third pair, however, and he showed that on Saturday.

The Caps are one win away from advancing to the second round. Here is where they stand among the other playoff teams in this week’s Stanley Cup Playoffs Power Rankings.

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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: 20 prospects linked to Baltimore at No. 22

Baltimore Ravens Roundup: 20 prospects linked to Baltimore at No. 22

We've made in to NFL draft week. Here's the latest Baltimore Ravens news.

Player/Team Notes: 

1. The 2019 NFL Draft is Thursday night in Nashville, Tn. While the chances of pundits predicting each team's first-round pick accurately is about the same as picking the Powerball numbers, we can't seem to stop ourselves from looking at them. Here's a look at 20 prospects mocked to the Ravens at No. 22, courtesy of the Ravens' website.  


2. One of the many exciting parts of the NFL draft is waiting to hear which organizations trade forward or backwards to acquire a pick. Just last year, the Ravens traded back from their No. 16 pick several times to select Hayden Hurst at No. 25, before trading back into the first-round to pick Lamar Jackson at No. 32. But which trade in Ravens history was the most impactful? ESPN's Jamison Hensley selected the Ravens' trade for running back Jamal Lewis.


"In 1999, the Ravens traded their second-round pick (No. 43) for Atlanta's first-round pick in 2000, which they used to land running back Jamal Lewis," Hensley wrote. "The Falcons selected tight end Reggie Kelly, and the Ravens got what turned into the No. 5 overall pick in the 2000 draft. Baltimore drafted Lewis, who carried the offense during the team's 2000 Super Bowl championship season and recorded the NFL's fifth 2,000-yard season in 2003."


3. As Marlon Humphrey enters his third year in the league, the cornerback will not only be expected to take on a leadership role within the Ravens' new look defense, but top his impressive sophomore season. In 2018, Humphrey contested 35% of targets thrown into his coverage marking the second-best rate in all the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. 


Looking Ahead:

April 25-27: 2019 NFL Draft in Nashville, Tn.

May 3-6 or May 10-13: Potential three-day rookie mini camp

July 15: 4 p.m. deadline to get long-term deal done with designated franchise tag player

The 2019 NFL schedule is set!  See the Baltimore Ravens defend the AFC North at M&T Bank Stadium this season. Get your tickets now at www.BaltimoreRavens.com/tickets.

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