Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold takes the snap and rolls out as the pass rush closes in. He cuts upfield, finds daylight and breaks toward the end zone. But Darnold loses the ball as he dives for the goal line, killing the Trojans’ drive at the one-yard line.That was how USC’s first possession ended in Saturday’s game against Colorado. The Trojans eventually battled to a 21-17 victory over the Buffaloes, but they had to overcome four turnovers on the way — three from Darnold, who lost two fumbles and threw an interception. Only an excellent defensive performance allowed USC to drive down the field and score the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. When the Trojan offense opened the second half with turnovers on their first three possessions, the Buffaloes managed just a single touchdown thanks to a quickly forced three-and-out and an acrobatic interception from junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson.To be sure, the Trojans didn’t have a poor offensive game. They racked up a season-best 539 total yards on offense, Darnold passed for a career-high 358 and junior wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster notched more than 100 receiving yards for the second straight week. Darnold even miraculously spun a fumble into a touchdown, scrambling in the red zone before finding sophomore tight end Tyler Petite near the pylon.“He’s able to make things happen that wouldn’t be available [for other players],” Petite said of his quarterback after catching two scores on Saturday. “He’s special.”And for that reason, head coach Clay Helton was hesitant to rein in his dynamic signal caller, despite Darnold losing the ball on several occasions.“When you have a kid with this instinct and creative ability, I don’t think you handcuff him,” Helton said. “I told him, ‘Drive it like you stole it.’ You play the game with no fear, and he does.”It’s easy to understand Helton’s sentiment, as USC has been a rejuvenated team since the 19-year-old replaced redshirt junior Max Browne under center. The Trojans have suddenly become fumble-prone, however, capping the offense’s potential. The team hasn’t exactly been a hallmark of ball security all season, but since Darnold’s first start against Utah, USC has fumbled 10 times in three games, losing six. Darnold is responsible for four of them (three lost), but two other Trojans — Jackson and senior tailback Justin Davis — have also put the ball on the ground multiple times.“As an offense, you’re not going to win a ton of games turning the ball over four times,” Darnold said. “It’s something we have to keep working on in practice.”Indeed, USC might need to correct the issue if the team wants a win at Arizona. The Wildcats have forced six fumbles this season, recovering four, and have five interceptions as a team—although they forced two-thirds of their turnovers this year in a single game against Grambling State. You have to go back a decade, to a 20-3 Trojan victory in 2006, to find the last contest between USC and Arizona that ended with a two-possession winning margin. The Trojans upset the No. 10 Wildcats during their most recent visit to Tucson in 2014, but it was only thanks to a shanked field goal that would have put Arizona ahead with seconds left to play.In a game that could very well go down to the wire, another afternoon like last Saturday could cost USC the game and the season, which can hardly withstand another loss with the Trojans’ middling 3-3 record and a brutal end-of-season schedule on tap. Fortunately, Darnold isn’t dwelling on any mistakes, and he isn’t lacking in confidence.“No matter what anyone else thinks, you just have to control what you can control. You can’t control the past. You just have to look ahead,” he said. “In the end, you just have to look ahead and take it play after play.”That’s exactly the attitude a head coach wants his starter to have as he encourages his team to have a “playoff mentality.” Helton said every week would be treated like a championship game from here on out, but as long as Darnold was continuing to progress, Helton won’t hesitate to let the redshirt freshman go through his growing pains.“There will be mistakes … but he’s one of those guys that you don’t make a robot,” Helton said. “I’m very proud of where he’s at. He’s not a finished product by any means, but he’s helping us win football games.”After all, in a playoff run, that’s all that matters.
Irving, despite 6-for-17 shooting, still managed 20 points in an 84-74 slog that resembled something out of the 2004 Pacers playoff catalog.By Sunday night, order was restored in the East, with the Pistons receiving a 35-point drubbing in Milwaukee as seven Bucks notched double-figure scoring, including Middleton, who starred (24.7 points) in last year’s postseason.Still, the upsets were the story in the East’s opening games, and though there’s obviously plenty to time for the Raptors and Sixers to recover and move on to Round 2, those upsets were good reminders of how much is at stake in the East playoffs: probably, at least, the fate of six players and $1 billion. Malcolm Brogdon has not played since March, recovering from a plantar fascia tear. Yet he remains one of the handful of players on the conference’s top four teams whose long-term fate could be decided by these playoffs in the East.Brogdon is looking at a restricted free-agent contact next summer — no matter how quickly he heals — of four years and just north of $60 million, according to executives around the league. As one general manager told SN last week, Brogdon will be due a deal that counts as “Marcus Smart-plus.” NBA PLAYOFFS 2019:Full schedule | Picks from first round to FinalsSmart signed for four years and $52 million with Boston last summer. Brogdon, a good defender who had been the only player this year to go 50/40/90 (field-goal/3-point/free-throw shooting percentages) will be due a bump up from that.That deal could be contingent, though, on how deep the Bucks’ run into the playoffs goes and whether ownership determines that this 60-win group is worth keeping together at all costs. Brogdon will be caught up in those decisions.His teammate, Khris Middleton? Probably still a max player (or something close) as he comes off a season in which consistency was still a problem but his overall production was very good. Even as his scoring dipped to 18.3 points per game, his rebounding (6.0) and assists (4.3) were career highs.Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Boston’s Kyrie Irving? Max contracts ahead. Philly’s Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler? Likely max contracts, too.”There’s a lot riding on the playoffs in the East,” one executive told SN. “Because a lot of these decisions from the players’ standpoint and the teams’ standpoint are going to be impacted by who wins and who loses.”Five max guys plus Brogdon, who could return in the second round, represent around $1 billion of potential spending just two-and-a-half months from now. And after a head-scratching, brow-furrowing opening weekend of the East’s postseason, it’s anyone’s guess how that spending will pan out. The Sixers and Raptors lost their openers. Toronto got a terrible game from point guard Kyle Lowry, who failed to score while the journeyman who ran point opposite him — Orlando veteran D.J. Augustin — racked up 25 points.Leonard was himself, with 25 points and six rebounds, but he and Marc Gasol had a miscommunication on the game-winning shot from Augustin with 3.4 seconds remaining, and Leonard missed a chance to tie Game 1 on a 3-point attempt with 1.7 seconds left.👌.J. AUGUSTIN #BlueAndWhiteIgnite pic.twitter.com/ZY0lkftNLB— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) April 13, 2019OFFSEASON PREVIEWS:Lakers | Knicks | Bulls | Pelicans | MavericksIt’s likely that the Raptors recover to beat the Magic. We can’t be so sure about the Sixers, however.There were no blank boxes on the checklist of things that could have gone wrong for Philadelphia on Saturday. The health of Joel Embiid, dealing with a knee issue, was the big concern, and Embiid (22 points, 15 rebounds, five blocks) did not look 100 percent, going 5-for-15 from the field.But there were also fears that the Nets could expose the Sixers on the perimeter with their deep stable of guards. D’Angelo Russell had 26 points and Joe Harris had 13. Benchmates Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie combined for 41 points, and in all, the four Brooklyn guards were 29-for-64 (45.3 percent) from the floor and 10-for-18 (55.6 percent) from the 3-point line.Sixers point guard Ben Simmons, who struggled in last year’s postseason, did not inspire confidence, either. He was a minus-21 (as was shooting guard J.J. Redick), finishing with nine points, three assists and three turnovers.The Sixers reserves were outscored, 59-26. There were bonus items on the Sixers’ do-not-do checklist, too. Harris played 41 minutes and scored four points. Amir Johnson was fined for checking his cellphone on the bench. Simmons fired back at the booing the team took from Sixers fans, and if there’s one place in which you don’t want to challenge the fans, it’s Philadelphia.The ship was righted for the East’s top seeds on Sunday, even after a scare in Boston. The fifth-seeded Pacers led by nine points with 40 seconds to go in the first half before the Celtics rattled off a 24-3 run that went into the third quarter, giving Boston control of the game over an overmatched Indiana bunch.
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