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The Sports Report: What’s next for USC and Clay Helton?

USC coach Clay Helton watches the Trojans warm up before losing to Stanford at the Coliseum on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Howdy, I’m your host, Austin Knoblauch, filling in for Houston Mitchell, who’s probably still stuck in the SoFi Stadium parking lot. Let’s get right to the news.

Bill Plaschke on the future of Clay Helton at USC: A major announcement needs to be made by the USC athletic department, and it needs to be made immediately.

It should be made by USC administrators who will show how much they value their athletes, understand their brand and respect their tradition.

It should impart the message that, when it comes to leading a renowned football program representing a prestigious university, even a good man can be a bad fit, and even a builder of character must also be a producer of victories.

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It should conclude with the news that while there is no good time to fire your head football coach, once you realize you are going to fire him anyway, that time is now.

USC needs to remove Clay Helton right here, right now, no more waiting, no more waffling, no more rationalizing, no more rhapsodizing. Enough is enough, just do it.

Now.

USC coach Clay Helton watches players warm up before Saturday's game against Stanford.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Remove him while there is still hope in a season that has 10 remaining games and lingering Rose Bowl dreams.

Remove him while all those underachieving stars can still improve and the top-10 recruiting class is still interested and the program’s future in this new NIL world has not yet cratered.

Remove him before the boos suffocate, the Coliseum empties, the donations go dry and the last bits of shine on this once-proud program completely disappear under a veneer of sloppiness, recklessness and just plain ill-prepared football.

Some version of this column has been written several times during the last several years of Helton’s tumultuous seven-year tenure, but the situation has never been more dire, the move has never been more pressing and this keyboard alarm has never been more serious.

More on USC and Helton:

College football Saturday review: USC coach Clay Helton must go after loss to Stanford

USC’s Clay Helton urges unity, praises Graham Harrell after Stanford loss

‘I can no longer fight on’: Keyshawn Johnson joins USC fans blasting Clay Helton

Clay Helton says spike in penalties that fueled USC’s loss to Stanford ‘really sticks’

Amid a chorus of boos, No. 14 USC sputters to 42-28 loss to Stanford

DODGERS

Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer salutes the crowd after his 3,000th career strikeout Sunday.
Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer salutes the crowd after his 3,000th career strikeout Sunday against the San Diego Padres.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Mike DiGiovanna on the Dodgers: Max Scherzer zoomed past another signpost on the road to Cooperstown, N.Y., on Sunday, barely pausing to mark the 3,000th strikeout of a distinguished 14-year career that will culminate with his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When the Dodgers right-hander whiffed Eric Hosmer with a full-count changeup in the fifth inning of an 8-0 victory over the San Diego Padres, catcher Will Smith tossed the milestone ball to the dugout and Scherzer doffed his cap to a roaring crowd of 42,637 in Chavez Ravine, the delay lasting all of about 20 seconds.

Scherzer had work to do, and his laser focus and disdain for distractions pushed the three-time Cy Young Award winner to the brink of even more history.

Scherzer retired the first 22 batters of the game, but five outs away from a perfect game — a feat accomplished by only 23 major leaguers — and with the drama and tension building with every out, he gave up a one-out double in the eighth to Hosmer, who laced a 2-and-1 changeup into the right-field corner.

Scherzer settled for an eight-inning, one-hit, nine-strikeout, no-walk gem that improved him to 14-4 with a major league-best 2.17 ERA on the season, and 6-0 with an 0.88 ERA in eight starts since his July 30 trade from Washington.

“To throw no-hitters, perfect games, you really have to execute every single pitch, especially at the end, because the other team knows what’s going on, and they’re giving you the best at-bats you can get,” said Scherzer, who threw two no-hitters for the Nationals in 2015. “One little pitch in a bad count, that’s what gives it up.”

The loss of the perfect game hardly put a damper on the day for Scherzer and the Dodgers, who completed a three-game sweep of the Padres to remain 2½ games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West with 18 games left.

More on Scherzer from Bill Shaikin: Max Scherzer could make Trevor Bauer a footnote in Dodgers history

RAMS

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, left, celebrates with Van Jefferson.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, left, celebrates with Van Jefferson after the wide receiver caught a touchdown pass Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Sam Farmer on Matthew Stafford‘s winning debut with the Rams: Different place, same Matthew Stafford.

The spirals sharp enough to cut glass. The geometry class of arm angles. The quiet calm while a cyclone swirls around him.

But one of his former teammates also saw something different in Stafford on Sunday night when the new Rams quarterback made his debut against the Chicago Bears in the first meaningful game at SoFi Stadium.

An almost childlike joy.

“He’s always kind of leaned more toward the reserved side,” said Drew Stanton, one of Stafford’s former backups with the Detroit Lions, watching the Rams’ 34-14 victory from home in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He’s got a lot of characteristics to him, and ‘excitable’ wouldn’t be one that I would use to describe him. But this was like a kid getting a chance to go out and play backyard football.

“It was like going back to high school, when you just go out and have fun. That’s what he looked like for me. And for a long time in Detroit when you’re beaten down consistently from a lot of different angles, it can take a toll on you. This looked like a guy that was playing carefree.”

———

More on the Rams from Gary Klein: Matthew Stafford and Rams showcase high-flying offense in opening win over Bears

CHARGERS

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws during a 20-16 win over Washington on Sunday.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Dylan Hernández on Justin Herbert and the Chargers: His lips twitched, as if he were trying to contain a smile.

Low key as ever, Justin Herbert managed to restrain himself as he described his third-down pass to Keenan Allen that sealed the Chargers’ 20-16 victory over the Washington Football Team.

He continued like this for a couple of minutes until he was presented with what he considered to be an appropriate reason to smile from ear to ear, as someone mentioned the Ohio State’s upset loss the previous day to his alma mater, Oregon.

“I actually got updates on the plane,” he said.

Beaming, he ran his right index finger across the tip of his nose.

“Just seeing the score and seeing those guys battle, super proud of them,” he said.

The next question was whether Sunday marked the first time Herbert had won a NFL game with his father in the stands. The smile disappeared.

Herbert’s reserved demeanor failed to conceal what was obvious to everyone at FedEx Field: The Chargers have a Super Bowl quarterback.

Not in a year, not in two.

Now.

The experience he gained in a record-breaking-but-nonetheless-frustrating rookie year had helped him lead the greatest drive of his career, against a team that reached the postseason last year and boasted of one of the league’s most ferocious defenses.

More on the Chargers from Jeff Miller: Despite mishaps, Chargers find road to a good start in win over Washington

TENNIS

Daniil Medvedev holds the U.S. Open championship trophy after defeating Novak Djokovic on Sunday.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Helene Elliott on the U.S. Open men’s singles championship: Novak Djokovic’s quest to win all four men’s Grand Slam singles titles in a calendar year was ended by the crushing weight of history and a brilliant game plan devised by a fresher, younger opponent who respects Djokovic’s greatness but no longer has reason to be intimidated by it.

Daniil Medvedev, a lanky, 25-year-old Russian, had been knocking on the door of winning a Slam tournament singles championship the last two years. Rafael Nadal stopped him in the 2019 U.S. Open final after Medvedev had rallied from two sets down to force a fifth set, and Djokovic blew him out in straight sets in this year’s Australian Open final, in which Medvedev won only nine games. Medvedev had done well to reach No. 2 in the world and had lost only one set here, to qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp in the quarterfinals, but he still had to climb that last and most difficult step.

On Sunday, with Djokovic depleted emotionally and physically after going five sets in the semifinals Friday and losing the first set for the fifth straight match, Medvedev efficiently exploited the 34-year-old Serb’s vulnerabilities and entered the Slam event winners’ club with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 shocker.

Medvedev served well, firing 16 aces. Djokovic’s mental and physical fitness are legendary, but Medvedev won 22 of the 41 rallies that went between five and eight shots and won 18 of the 25 rallies that went nine shots or longer.

Above all, Medvedev had a fire he had never felt before. Djokovic couldn’t quench it.

“You could feel that he was just at highest of his abilities in every shot. He had a lot of clarity what he needs to do tactically. He has executed it perfectly,” Djokovic said. “The other hand, I was just below par with my game. My legs were not there. I was trying. I did my best. Yeah, I made a lot of unforced errors. I didn’t have, no serve, really. If you’re playing someone like Medvedev who hits his spots so well, just aces, gets a lot of free points on his first serve, you’re constantly feeling pressure on your service games.

“I was below par with everything, to be honest. So just one of these days where unfortunately, yeah, wasn’t meant to be.”

ANGELS

Angels starting pitcher Jaime Barria throws against the Houston Astros on Sunday.
(Michael Wyke / Associated Press)

Jack Harris on the Angels: Sunday was full of familiar sights for the Angels.

A young starter — this time, Jaime Barria — looking decent, but far from dominant.

A stellar opposing pitching staff — this time, Lance McCullers Jr. and the back end of the Houston Astros’ lethal bullpen — keeping a short-handed lineup quiet.

And manager Joe Maddon only able to compliment his team’s fight in the wake of another disappointing result — this time, a 3-1 loss in a series rubber match at Minute Maid Park.

“[The Astros] are a team that’s totally in the hunt right now, playing for something more than we are,” Maddon said. “But we’re playing right with them.”

The Angels might have indeed hung with the American League West leaders this weekend, but they couldn’t claim the series either, unable to respond on Sunday after Kyle Tucker hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth.

The Angels are 70-73, playing out the string of a season that will once again end with them outside the playoff picture. The Astros improved to 83-59, reinforcing once again the gulf between themselves and their division rival.

LAFC

Kevin Baxter on LAFC: The pulse might be weak and the heartbeat faint, but LAFC’s playoff hopes are far from dead. And you can credit Cristian Arango for giving the team new life.

The Colombian newcomer scored a pair of first-half goals Sunday, sparking a 3-2 win over Real Salt Lake that lifted the team into eighth place in the Western Conference. Goal differential is the only thing keeping it from the seventh and final playoff berth.

When Arango joined the team a month ago, LAFC was four games into an eight-game winless streak. But with Arango starting — and scoring in — the last three, LAFC is unbeaten.

Want more proof LAFC’s fortunes have changed? The deciding goal Sunday was a gift, with Real Salt Lake’s Tori Datkovic missing keeper David Ochoa with a soft back pass, sending the ball into the net for an own goal and sending LAFC off with the victory.

But that mistake might not have mattered if not for Arango, who has provided the offensive spark LAFC has long been missing.

“He made such a good first impression,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said of Arango, who played the last two seasons with Millonarios in Colombia’s first division. “He wanted to be here. And from the beginning, you could tell that he’s got strong character, he’s got a great mentality. That part just rubs off in a good way on everybody.

“You can just tell when a player shows up and he’s motivated, he’s into it. Then he goes onto the field and is ready to do anything to help the team. That’s a big statement. And he’s done that from the start.”

SPARKS

Thuc Nhi Nguyen on the Sparks: It took a teenager to help the Sparks get their priorities straight Sunday night.

With the Sparks in the thick of a WNBA playoff race, spelling bee champion and budding basketball star Zaila Avant-garde joined the team for a two-day visit and gave a pregame pep talk before the regular-season home finale against the Seattle Storm.

Have fun, play hard and you can win the game, she told the Sparks.

Check, check and check.

Needing a win to stay in playoff contention, the Sparks delivered one of their best performances of the season in an 81-53 rout of the reigning champion Storm. The Sparks, who have played at Staples Center just five times this season after starting their home slate at the Los Angeles Convention Center, gave their fans a celebratory sendoff, inspired by the presence of Avant-garde, 14.

“At the end of the day, it’s still just basketball,” said Sparks coach Derek Fisher, who allowed Avant-garde to sit next to him during the postgame news conference. “It’s your job, you’re fortunate to have a job, go out and play like it. To me, that’s what tonight was all about instead of us doing anything amazing from a strategic standpoint.”

The Sparks (11-19) still must win their last two regular-season games and get help from the No. 8 seed, the Washington Mystics (12-18), to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011. In addition to winning at Atlanta on Thursday and at Dallas next Sunday, the Sparks need the Mystics to lose at New York on Friday and at home against Minnesota next Sunday.

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1930 — Tommy Armour beats Gene Sarazen 1 up to win the PGA Championship.

1964 — Roy Emerson beats fellow Australian Fred Stolle to win the men’s title in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association championships. Brazil’s Maria Bueno wins the women’s title. Emerson wins in straight sets 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 and Bueno easily wins 6-1, 6-0.

1970 — Only 55 of 126 finish the first New York City Marathon, with Gary Muhrcke winning in 2 hours, 31 minutes, 38.2 seconds. The race is run counterclockwise on a 26.22-mile course in Central Park.

1981 — The Atlanta Falcons, trailing 17-0 with 13 minutes remaining in the game, score 31 points to beat the Green Bay Packers 31-17. The Falcons score touchdowns on a punt return, two by passes, an interception return and a fumble return.

1981 — John McEnroe defeats Bjorn Borg to win his third straight men’s singles title in the U.S. Open.

1989 — Pat Day breaks the record for most winners in one day when he scored with eight of his nine mounts at Arlington Racecourse in Illinois. It was the best day for one program in North American thoroughbred racing history. In his only loss, Day finishes second.

1992 — Buffalo’s Jim Kelly and San Francisco’s Steve Young throw for more than 400 yards and neither team punts, the first time in NFL history, as the Bills beat the 49ers 34-31.

1997 — Cade McNown throws a school-record five touchdown passes as UCLA routs No. 11 Texas 66-3. It’s the second-worst loss for Texas, which lost 68-0 to Chicago in 1904, and the biggest defeat of a ranked team in The Associated Press college football poll.

2003 — Tonya Butler makes a field goal and three extra points for Division II West Alabama. Butler, a 5-foot-5, 140-pound senior, kicks a 27-yarder in the first quarter to help the Tigers beat Stillman College 24-17. It could not be confirmed whether Butler was the first woman to kick a field goal because NCAA statistics do not differentiate between sexes.

2008 — Brigham Young quarterback Max Hall ties a school record with seven touchdown passes as the 18th-ranked Cougars hands UCLA its worst loss in nearly 80 years, 59-0.

2009 — Brandon Stokley only catches one pass — but it is a big one. He grabs a deflection and runs 87 yards with 11 seconds left to give Denver a 12-7 win over Cincinnati. Stokley even burns a few extra seconds by taking his time going into the end zone.

2010 — Rafael Nadal wins his first U.S. Open title to complete a career Grand Slam, beating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.

2013 — Jim Furyk becomes the sixth player in PGA Tour history to shoot a 59 to give him a share of the lead at the BMW Championship.

2015 — Lydia Ko becomes the youngest major champion in LPGA Tour history winning the Evian Championship. The South Korean-born New Zealander closes with an 8-under 63 for a six-stroke victory over Lexi Thompson. Ko, at 18 years, 4 months and 20 days old, eclipses the previous record of American Morgan Pressel, who was 18 years, 10 months and nine days old when she won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship.

And finally

Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer gave quite the performance on Sunday. Check out his 3,000th career strikeout and his immaculate inning.

Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.


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