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As Stanford and Washington State sweat out final weekend, USC waits for Pac-12 championship game in comfort

As Stanford and Washington State sweat out final weekend, USC waits for Pac-12 championship game in comfort
Stanford coach David Shaw looks on during the first half of a game against California. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Football coach David Shaw spoke with Stanford athletic officials this week to devise a plan for the Cardinal’s game against Notre Dame on Saturday.

Not a game plan; Shaw could handle that just fine by himself. The plan was for the day’s other big game, one that might be more important for Stanford than its own: Washington vs. Washington State.

Stanford and Washington State are vying to play USC in the Pac-12 Conference championship game next week, but only Washington State’s game matters. Stanford’s is nonconference. Both games start at 5 p.m.

So Shaw tried to lay some ground rules. An announcement of the other game's score here and there, during a timeout, would be OK, he said. He knows his players will be curious. But he doesn't want them to lose focus.

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"It's not going to be scrolling every two minutes during the game," Shaw said. "That's definitely not going to happen."

One of several advantages USC will benefit from this week is this: USC doesn't have to worry about scoreboard watching. The Trojans, who don't have a game, can observe both teams and root for the most favorable matchup.

USC coach Clay Helton said he has no preference for which team the Trojans play — "either one," he said, noting that "you don't worry about things you can't control."

USC executed its best performance of the season in Week 2 against Stanford, a 42-24 victory. It executed one of its worst in Week 5 against Washington State, a 30-27 loss. Since then, Stanford and Washington State have embarked on opposite trajectories.

Shaw spoke almost reverently about USC after the teams' first meeting. Asked what his team might have done to slow down USC quarterback Sam Darnold, Shaw shrugged and said, "He's that good."

USC also outrushed Stanford, 207 yards to 170. "They played extremely well," Shaw said. "Not that we played poorly, but they played really well."

Stanford's next game was even more shocking. San Diego State upset the Cardinal, 20-17. "A lot of people thought that we were done, sitting there at 1-2," Shaw said.

Instead, the loss prompted a quarterback change. Shaw inserted K.J. Costello for Keller Chryst. Injuries on the offensive line precipitated personnel changes. The moves reinvigorated Stanford. It has won seven of the past eight games. Bryce Love went on a rampage, rushing for 263 yards against UCLA and 301 against Arizona State to establish himself as perhaps the nation's most dangerous running back.

For USC, there is little upside in a matchup against Stanford, a surging team that USC has already defeated.

Washington State offers a chance to avenge a loss. That game devastated USC. Players cried in the locker room. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin appeared almost catatonic afterward, offering clipped, quiet responses during an interview. And USC emerged from the game beset by injuries; the Trojans were without three starting linemen by the game's end.

USC is much healthier now. A chance to play the Cougars at full strength and on a neutral field would be enticing.

In the game in September, Washington State won with defense. Darnold, under constant pressure, had the worst game of his career. He completed 15 of 29 passes with an interception, a fumble and two rushing touchdowns. He passed for just 164 yards.

Since that game, Washington State’s defense has encountered turbulence. The Cougars have enjoyed quality wins, including over Stanford this month, but were embarrassed by California, 37-3, and Arizona ran up the score in a 58-37 win, rushing for 300 yards.

After playing Washington State the first time on a Friday evening following a road game, USC's bye week gives the Trojans an advantage this time.

It is the reward for playing 12 straight games without a bye.

"Sometimes you catch a break, and right now we're catching that break," Helton said.

Washington State coach Mike Leach said he wasn't sure how he felt about USC's late bye week.

"I prefer mine earlier," he said. "And I'm not sure the Trojans don't too."

Leach added that he hadn't thought about it too much. He was focusing first on getting to the championship game.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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