A Trip West: Angels, Chargers & Oregon

The Notebook makes a trip to the West Coast to check out the Angels' sudden turnaround and preview the San Diego Chargers and Oregon Ducks.


It was just six days ago that the Angels’ pursuit of the AL West title was all but finished. They had just lost three straight home games to Texas and fallen seven games off the pace entering a series finale with the Rangers on Thursday, August 18. Even if Jered Weaver could build his Cy Young case with a win, it seemed too little too late.

Weaver came up with a clutch performance, outdueling Colby Lewis for a 2-1 win that kept LAA on life support. Then they turned it loose with a home series against Baltimore and rookie centerfielder Peter Bourjos was the key. In three successive games against the Orioles the previously light-hitting Bourjos ripped off three hits and in two of those games he homered. The Angels won two of three weekend games in blowouts and escaped with another in the 12th inning. He continued his hitting streak last night with another base hit in a walkoff win against the White Sox that pulled the Halos to 3.5 games. And suddenly the AL West is a race again.

The Angels get some national TV exposure tonight when the play the White Sox again on ESPN2. But the big exposure comes this weekend when they get a return date with the Rangers in Arlington, and ESPN goes to Dallas on Sunday night. It will be the last time the rivals face each other until the season’s final three games in Anaheim.

LAA’s pitching aces, with Weaver, Dan Haren and perhaps even Ervin Santana who’s pitching well, given the Angels an edge the longer this race stays up for grabs. It looked like Texas had finally put it away at this time last week, before the door was re-opened. But the Angels need to take full advantage of their opportunities this weekend and at least pick up a game. A second chance is a blessing, but to expect a third chance would be presumptuous, as the big series in Dallas beckons.


The decline in discipline that San Diego has seen under the regime of A.J. Smith and Norv Turner finally came to a head in 2010. The Chargers were terrible on special teams and frequent mistakes resulted in an elite offense and a pretty good defense ending up at 9-7 and missing the playoffs in spite of playing in a weak division. General manager Smith’s job is secure, but the same can’t be said for Coach Turner, who you would think needs a return to the postseason to keep his office at Chargers Park. The talent is again there to give him a chance to do that.

Philip Rivers is the straw that stirs the drink in this organization and that was never more apparent than last year. Despite a lengthy contract holdout from Vincent Jackson and injuries at receiver that left Rivers throwing to whomever the front office could find in the parking lot before a game, he still threw for over 4,000 yards. Jackson is back in the fold, as is solid #2 receiver Malcolm Floyd and a reliable slot man in Patrick Crayton. And we haven’t even gotten to the best target, tight end Antonio Gates. With an offensive line that is reliable in pass protection, a running game that is at least competent and a head coach whose great strength lies in his offensive abilities, San Diego is going to blow out the scoreboard lights again in 2011.

San Diego loses aggressive defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to Carolina where he’s now head coach and it will be interesting to see how the Charger defense responds. Rivera was brought in the middle of 2008 when the Bolts got off to a 4-8 start. After the defensive coaching change, that team won its last four, got in the playoffs and beat Indianapolis. They won 13 games in 2009 and again played pretty well last year. Now they have to keep that success going with their leader gone.

Any 3-4 defense built around outside linebacker Shaun Phillips and corners Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason is going to have a chance to compete. Phillips can wreak havoc against both the run and in rushing the passer, while the corners ensure the D can be aggressive with confidence. For support San Diego took a flyer on oft-injured Bob Sanders from Indianapolis. I’m not at all confident that Sanders can stay healthy, but when he is on the field that one’s more playmaker in the San Diego fold.

It’s hard to imagine San Diego playing as badly on special teams as they did a year ago and on that basis alone, returning to double-digit wins and the playoffs is a fair expectation and finally getting the Super Bowl a reasonable goal.


Chip Kelly has had the Oregon program rising at laser speed these past two seasons. When USC began to fall in 2009, Kelly’s Ducks were quick into the Pac-10’s power vacuum. They won the conference title in ’09 and last season rolled all the way to the BCS National Championship Game. In both instances they came up short, losing a Rose Bowl to Ohio State and last year’s title tilt to Auburn, but they were competitive both times. Now Oregon aims for the final step.

The Ducks have to be stronger up front if they’re going to win a national championship and neither line is looking very good as we sit here in August. They have only two starters back on the offensive front and just one senior. The defensive trenches are even younger, with two new sophomores going into the lineup and just one returning starter in a 4-3 scheme. There’s no sign the Ducks can match up any better with physical teams like 2009 Ohio State or 2010 Auburn than they have the past two years. Furthermore, the trench weakness leaves an avenue for contenders in the newly expanded Pac-12 to make a move.

Kelly’s system relies on speed to cure all ills though, and Oregon is filled with explosiveness, both offensively and defensively. The defense has an experienced secondary, with safeties John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant and lockdown corner Cliff Harris. And the high-powered offense is going to remain this team’s calling card. Darron Thomas is already going into his third year as starting quarterback and he’s only a junior. LaMichael James is a leading Heisman candidate in the backfield. The Ducks do need some new receivers, but in the short-term Thomas can still look for senior tight end David Paulson.

Oregon’s got a good program going and I hope the NCAA posse doesn’t crackdown over the recruiting issues pertaining to a middleman in Houston. The dark cloud over Eugene could create a psychological problem for Kelly to deal with. But even in terms of on the field play, I think they’re a little too soft up front for anything more than a conference title to be a realistic goal.

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