Woods, Barkley eye records when USC hosts Colorado

Woods, Barkley eye records when USC hosts Colorado

LOS ANGELES (AP) Robert Woods and Matt Barkley are closing in on two remarkable records at Southern California.

Even with the way Colorado's defense has played lately, the No. 11 Trojans say they aren't planning their celebration just yet.

With its national title dreams still somewhat realistic, USC (5-1, 3-1 Pac-12) finally returns to the Coliseum on Saturday for just its second home game in seven weeks. The Trojans are a 40-point favorite against the Buffaloes (1-5, 1-2), who have yielded more than 45 points per game since their season opener.

``We're trying to treat it like they're another top team,'' Woods said.

Even with ample evidence to the contrary - and even with history in reach.

With 96 career touchdown passes heading into his 43rd career start, Barkley needs four TDs to pass Matt Leinart for the USC and conference career marks. A big chunk of those throws have gone to Woods, whose pending achievement is even more spectacular: He needs just five catches to surpass Dwayne Jarrett's 216, making him USC's career leader midway through his junior season.

``Growing up watching all the USC receivers - Jarrett, Steve Smith, Mike Williams, all those great guys - it's special to be a part of that,'' Woods said. ``It's a blessing that I could do it in just 2 1/2 (seasons). I hope I can do it on Saturday at home.''

With 36 catches for 360 yards and five touchdowns this year, Woods' performances haven't been as eye-popping they were in his All-American sophomore season, albeit for a variety of reasons. Opposing defenses have been daring the Trojans to run the ball since their season opener, blatantly sitting back in unbalanced pass defenses to limit Woods and Marqise Lee, who still has 54 catches of his own for 681 yards and seven scores.

``It is different than last year, but I have a different role,'' Woods said. ``Marqise emerged as a top receiver. We've got a great running game. I have to do different things to make us successful ... and I care about winning games most of all.''

Barkley and Woods are hoping coach Lane Kiffin will allow them to unleash the passing game that tormented defenses down the stretch last season. Kiffin has been content to grind out wins with USC's running game and a sturdy defense - and though Barkley's Heisman Trophy candidacy is on life support, his chances of playing in a January bowl for the first time are still healthy.

``I'm certainly having a good time,'' Barkley said. ``From now, our goal is to win out for the rest of the season.''

It all starts Saturday at the sold-out Coliseum, where football-starved USC fans begin a delicious stretch of four games in six weeks, including a showdown with Oregon in two weeks and culminating in Notre Dame's post-Thanksgiving visit. Yet the Trojans aren't looking past the Buffaloes, who are trying to relish the long odds they're facing in their first Coliseum visit since 2000.

``I want to play the best, and they have the best guys, some of the best guys in the nation,'' Colorado safety Parker Orms said. ``Matt Barkley, the receivers, even their running back, their whole team are NFL guys, and I just want to see how I can match up against them. I know our guys aren't afraid.''

Orms was disappointed when the Buffaloes didn't face Stanford's Andrew Luck in their first season in the Pac-12. Barkley's numbers haven't been prolific this season, but he burnished his reputation during USC's visit to Boulder last season, throwing a school-record six touchdown passes in a 42-17 victory that kept USC perfect in its six meetings with the Buffs.

Colorado coach Jon Embree realizes the hazards of taking on USC's passing game after what it did to the Buffaloes last season, and he's not professing any secret knowledge about how to shut down Barkley, Woods and Lee.

``Well, to keep them in check, don't let them play,'' Embree said. ``You're not going to keep them in check.''

USC's defense also hopes to build on its strong season, culminating in an impressive effort at Washington last weekend. The Trojans have given up just 111 points all season, while the Colorado defense gave up 51 last week alone.

With a full week at home after back-to-back road trips and a bye, the Trojans are hopeful they've moved back into their groove.

``Just because we're a 40-point favorite doesn't mean we have a week off,'' USC safety T.J. McDonald said. ``We're creating good habits and making sure we still pay attention.''

Embree realizes the California recruits attending Saturday's game might not be terribly enticed by the Buffaloes if they're getting pounded by USC. But even if a blowout ensues, the Colorado coach is looking for players who understand it won't always be this way.

``They need to understand that we are not instant oatmeal,'' Embree said. ``We are not just adding water and going. So if that's what they're looking for, then this is not the place for them. If they want to be a part of something special and help build something, those are the things we talk about.''

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Five observations from Wizards' 117-109 win over the Orlando Magic, including Jeff Green's takeover

Five observations from Wizards' 117-109 win over the Orlando Magic, including Jeff Green's takeover

The Washington Wizards beat the Orlando Magic 117-109 on Monday night. Here are five observations from the game...

Two in a row: The Wizards did something on Monday night they had yet to do this season. They won their second game in a row.

Now 4-9 on the season, the Wizards have some work remaining to regain respectability. But there were some encouraging signs. For instance, they won the rebounding margin for just the second time this season. They also made 13 threes.

This win, however, would have been a lot easier if they could lock down the three-point line. The Magic shot 15-for-30 from three. Perimeter defense continues to be a major blindspot for Washington.

Green dominated: Bradley Beal's comparison of Jeff Green to LeBron James all of a sudden doesn't sound so crazy.

Against the Magic, Green wasn't just good, he put the Wizards on his back and took over the game in the fourth quarter with a series of shots and defensive plays to keep Orlando at bay.

Green, who finished with 18 points in just 21 minutes, erupted for 10 points in the fourth quarter. He hit two threes in the frame and went 4-for-5 for the night. One of them bailed out Austin Rivers to beat the shot clock.

Green also had 19 points against the Heat on Friday. The veteran is playing well beyond expectations for the one-year contract he signed this summer. In the Wizards' past several games, he's given them starter production off the bench. 

Though Mike Scott was very good last season, Green is showing how he can do more because of how he can affect games defensively. It's no wonder why head coach Scott Brooks has relied on him in the fourth quarters of the last three games instead of starters.

Beal woke up late: With under five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Beal was ice cold. He had nine points on 3-for-13 shooting from the field and 0-for-6 from three.

But out of a timeout, Beal woke up and, like a button was pushed, took over the game. He began by sinking a tough layup off the glass. Moments later, he got his first three to fall. 

After that, he fed Dwight Howard for an and-1 on a drive set up by a slick behind-the-back move. And seconds later, he stole an errant pass and finished with a rim-bending slam on the other end.

Beal scored seven points in a stretch of about three minutes and almost singlehandedly erased what was a 10-point deficit to take the lead. He did what we saw him do so often last year. Despite struggling for more than half the game, he never wavered and found a way to get the ball in the rim.

Beal made something of his uneven night to post 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists. He proved once again that opposing teams can only keep him in check for so long.

Wall is heating up: Though John Wall has long been criticized for his outside shot, many forget he set a career-high last season by shooting 37.1 percent from three on 4.1 attempts per game. That wasn't bad at all and it looks like Wall may be finding that stroke once again.

After a slow start out of the gate, Wall has been on fire from three recently. He went 2-for-3 against the Magic and is now 16-for-37 in his last seven games. That's good for 43.2 percent.

Wall may never be a lights-out marksman from long range. But he is becoming more than respectable as a perimeter threat.

Mahinmi played again: It appears that Ian Mahinmi has earned his job back. He was benched for three straight games, but has now played in each of the past two. 

Similar to the win over the Heat on Friday, Mahinmi did his part with a minimal, but noticeable impact on the game. He had a nice weakside block in the first quarter. Jarell Martin drove left and got by his man and Mahinmi helped by stepping across the lane to swat it out of bounds.

That's what they need Mahinmi to do, play defense and not get in the way on offense. When he's not affecting games on the defensive end, his other shortcomings become magnified. Through two games, he's done enough to probably stay in the rotation for the time being.

While Mahinmi is back in the rotation, Otto Porter Jr. appears to be in the relative doghouse. This was the third straight game he has sat out the fourth quarter. Markieff Morris was in the same boat for two games, but got the nod against Orlando.

Some of it is simply Brooks rolling with the hot hand. But Brooks must not like something Porter has been doing lately. The best guess is his defense, as Jonathan Simmons, among others, was getting past Porter with regularity in this one.


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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

USA Today Sports

Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.