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Pac-12 still has playoff hope: For once, its top team and its refs didn’t blow it

Washington’s Salvon Ahmed is tackled by Oregon’s Nick Pickett in the first quarter on Saturday in Seattle.
Washington’s Salvon Ahmed is tackled by Oregon’s Nick Pickett in the first quarter on Saturday in Seattle.
(Abbie Parr / Getty Images)

All of Husky Stadium looked around for a flag.

Washington quarterback Jacob Eason’s fourth-down pass had sailed just over the hands of a stumbling Puka Nacua, seemingly sealing up a crucial road win for rival Oregon. But it appeared Nacua may have been shoved gingerly by a Ducks defender, and, this being the Pac-12, there was every reason to expect a game-changing pass interference penalty would be called.

After all, since when has a Pac-12 referee missed an opportunity to cloud the clear result of a game? And, if we’re being honest, it feels like it’s been ages since an important league contest actually went the way the conference needed for its top-ranked team to stay nationally relevant.

But, there were no flags. No. 12 Oregon held off No. 25 Washington, 35-31, improving to 6-1 and proving it is capable of making key plays and avoiding debilitating mistakes in the fourth quarter with Mario Cristobal as its coach.

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This looked like it was headed for a predictable Pac-12 finish. The Ducks, the team that feasibly still could contend for a College Football Playoff spot, trailed 28-14 early in the third quarter and 31-21 as the fourth quarter approached under the looming gray sky surrounding Lake Washington. The Huskies, who already had blown their shot at playoff contention with frustrating losses to California and Stanford, were of course playing their best game of the season and threatening to leave Utah as the league’s only one-loss team heading into Week 9.

If the Huskies had won, you would have had to tip your cap to Chris Petersen, who established Washington as the Pac-12’s top program with three straight New Year’s Six Bowl appearances and the most recent playoff berth in 2016. But Oregon rallying for the game’s last 14 points — making up for the Ducks’ choke job in the season-opening loss to Auburn in AT&T Stadium — was exactly what the conference had to have to gain respect.

James McCourt kicked a 39-yard field goal as time expired as Illinois pulled off the biggest upset of the college football season, knocking off No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23.

Oregon has struggled to close out games under Cristobal, who has done a phenomenal job recruiting top talent to Eugene and putting the Ducks in position to return to the upper echelon of college football in his nearly two years at the helm. Now, Oregon can begin to put past disappointments behind it and learn what it feels like to play meaningful games in November.

The Ducks have looked dominant since the Auburn loss. But a trip to play Washington, even this lesser version, always was going to ask more of them.

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Senior quarterback Justin Herbert, a Eugene native, finally put his stamp on the program, completing 24 of 38 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns. Oregon’s trio of tailbacks pounded away at the Huskies for a combined 180 yards, an indication that Cristobal’s emphasis on a power running game is paying off too.

Oregon’s defense didn’t have its best day, but it held the Huskies and the talented Eason scoreless in the fourth.

The Ducks should be in the top 10 soon enough, and they’ll be favored in each game from here on out. If the Pac-12 would just cooperate for once, No. 13 Utah, which beat No. 17 Arizona State 21-3 on Saturday, would run the table too, setting up a Pac-12 championship in which the winner would at least have an argument for a playoff spot worth hearing.

That said, this season is likely still lost for the league in regard to the playoff. The teams at the top — Alabama, Louisiana State, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma — look to be a cut above. Two of those teams would need to lose twice down the stretch.

Oregon and Utah shouldn’t waste time dreaming about any of that, though. It still will take an impressive stretch of consistency from both teams to give the Pac-12 title game the attention it deserves as a Power Five conference that is carrying its weight.

Trojans shining elsewhere

The most shocking upset of the season took on an unfortunate local flavor for USC.

Illinois, led by beautifully bearded and beleaguered coach Lovie Smith, was a 30.5-point underdog to No. 6 Wisconsin, which hadn’t trailed for a second of the season until James McCourt’s 39-yard field goal sailed through the uprights to give the Illini a 24-23 victory over the Badgers.

So what does this have to do with the Trojans? Two key members of the Illinois team — defensive end Oluwole Betiku and wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe — transferred from USC last offseason.

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They’ve had a huge impact in Champaign, and that continued Saturday, with Betiku sacking Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan and Imatorbhebhe catching a 29-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to pull the Illini within 23-21.

Betiku was a five-star recruit out of Gardena Serra, the No. 15 overall in the 2016 class according to inthe 247Sports composite rankings, but injuries derailed his time in Troy. He sat out last season after hip surgery, and Illinois is now repeating the benefits of his recovery. Betiku tallied his eighth sack of the season Saturday. He entered the game tied for fourth nationally.

Imatorbhebhe, a native of Suwanee, Ga., was the No. 158 player in the 2016 class. He battled lower body injuries at USC and never could work his way up the depth chart at a crowded position with tons of talent. After Saturday, he has six touchdown catches, tied for second in the Big Ten.

One of the biggest knocks against USC coach Clay Helton has been that he does not encourage competition and plays favorites with his roster. He tried to combat that this offseason, but it’s hard not to wonder how Betiku and Imatorbhebhe would be faring if they still were at USC.

It’s possible they wouldn’t be playing, so it looks like they made the right choice to enter the transfer portal.

Miami misery

The Miami Hurricanes had run off wins in three of their last four games, including a tight victory over then-No. 20 Virginia last week, a result that felt like a real step in the right direction.

But on Saturday, first-year coach Manny Diaz got the message real quick that this is a major rebuild in Coral Gables.

Miami lost at home, 28-21 in overtime to a Georgia Tech team that was 1-5. The Hurricanes lost because they missed three field goals within 35 yards, including a 25-yarder in the final minute from walk-on kicker Turner Davidson that was blocked.

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It’s ridiculously bad luck to miss three kicks that close, but if Miami truly was turning a corner, it would not have been in a position for those kicks to matter against the Yellow Jackets.


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