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Game Day: On USC and UCLA bowl-game losses and lessons

Editor’s note: This is the Wednesday, January 4, edition of the “Game Day with Kevin Modesti” newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Good morning. The USC and UCLA football teams are picking up the pieces after losing their bowl games in the final seconds. Let’s look at what’s ahead after a glance at other sports news.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin remained in critical condition after suffering cardiac arrest during Monday night’s game in Cincinnati.
The Kings scored their latest high-quality win by beating the Stars.
The Sparks named a new CEO and GM in Karen Bryant, who helped the Seattle Storm win two WNBA titles in an executive role.
LAFC met Latif Blessing’s trade request by sending the midfielder to the New England Revolution, leaving Carlos Vela as the team’s lone remaining original member.
Another cloud over U.S. men’s national coach Gregg Berhalter’s future: U.S. soccer announced an investigation of Berhalter’s admission that he kicked his future wife in an argument 30 years ago, and an alleged blackmail plot stemming from the incident.

USC lost the Cotton Bowl on Monday 46-45 when Tulane got a touchdown and extra point with nine seconds left to complete a 16-point rally in the last 4½ minutes.

UCLA lost the Sun Bowl on Friday 37-35 when Pitt kicked a field goal with four seconds left after the Bruins had taken the lead on a touchdown and PAT with 34 seconds to go.

Watching those games from the comfort of home, a sportswriter felt sympathy for reporters Adam Grosbard, in Arlington, Texas, and Elenie Gonzalez, in El Paso, Texas, who must have had to delete perfectly good ledes at least once before writing new ones as the stories changed on deadline.

The stories of these disappointing ends to good seasons for the Trojans and Bruins won’t really be complete for, perhaps, years, when we’ll know where the bowl-game losses fit in the teams’ longer narratives.

Were the defeats mere growing pains? Will everybody look back someday and laugh? Were the defensive setbacks just what the coaches needed to underscore what has to improve?

Defense is a focus of Grosbard’s USC season review, in today’s SCNG papers, and Eric He’s UCLA season wrap-up, in the Sunday papers.

“In a lot of ways, we’re further ahead in so many areas than I would have thought. But we clearly have a lot of work to do,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said at the end of his first season in L.A., in which Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams led the Pac-12’s highest-scoring offense and the Trojans went 11-3 and took a No. 8 ranking into the bowl.

As for the Pac-12’s third-most-scored-upon defense, Grosbard points out: “Somehow it got worse as the season progressed.”

Whether or not defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is replaced, the challenge will be to improve the defense as much in this offseason as Riley improved the offense with transfers in the previous offseason.

That challenge got harder yesterday when Tuli Tuipulotu, the All-America defensive tackle with a nation-leading 13½ sacks as a junior, declared he’s entering the NFL draft.

At UCLA, it’s a little different coming out of a 9-4 season and No. 18 ranking going into the bowl.

The Sun Bowl loss was “perhaps a microcosm of UCLA’s defensive struggles,” Eric He writes.

But coach Chip Kelly’s big job in the offseason will be to replace quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, after five years, and very likely leading running back Zach Charbonnet and receiver Jake Bobo, who are expected to enter the NFL draft.

The Bruins’ prospects at quarterback improved when Kelly pulled recruit Dante Moore away from Oregon in December.

This is the first year since 2013 that both USC and UCLA had improved, winning records and (let’s assume) top-25 finishes in the AP poll.

In 2013, both won their bowl games to go into the offseason on a high. Now, they go into the offseason after a reality check.

Growing pains? We’ll see how much more growth takes place in the offseasons and seasons ahead.

TODAY

Lakers host the Heat, with LeBron James (ankle) questionable (7 p.m., SPSN, ESPN). Lakers update.
Ducks and ex-Dallas defenseman John Klingberg meet the Stars (7 p.m., BSSC). Ducks update.

NEXT QUESTION

If you’re a USC or UCLA football fan, do you think your team is on the right track? Share your opinion and reason by email (KModesti@scng.com) or on Twitter (@KevinModesti).

280 CHARACTERS

“(Tuli) Tuipulotu was a three-star recruit out of high school, the 40th ranked DT in his class. Now he declares for the NFL draft after the minimum three seasons and leaves a gaping hole on the USC defense.” – Adam Grosbard (@AdamGrosbard) on the defensive end’s departure after his junior season.

1,000 WORDS

Welcome home: The Dallas Stars’ Jason Robertson, a 23-year-old Arcadia native, celebrates scoring a goal in the second period against the Kings last night at Crypto.com Arena, where his parents were in the crowd. Photo is by Ronald Martinez for Getty Images.

LET’S TALK

Thanks for reading the newsletter. Send suggestions, comments and questions by email at KModesti@scng.com and via Twitter @KevinModesti.

Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the “Game Day with Kevin Modesti” newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

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