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USC Sports

USC clinches Pac-12 South title with 38-24 victory at Colorado

The news pinged around USC’s sideline during the fourth quarter of its 38-24 victory on Saturday at Colorado.

“We saw Georgia fell,” running back Ronald Jones II said.

The idea bounced around a boisterous locker room, after No. 11 USC clinched its second Pac-12 South division title in three years. Then, in a cramped anteroom just outside the door, the question was posed to quarterback Sam Darnold: Somewhere, in the back of USC players’ minds, is there a small hope that, maybe, the Trojans could, possibly, still make it into the College Football Playoff?

Darnold, always confident, minutes removed from perhaps his best performance of the season, did not blink. He did not hesitate.

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“Yeah,” he said. “A hundred percent.”

USC remains an extreme longshot to make the final four by season’s end. Yet some players liked their odds.

“I think it’s looking pretty good,” Jones said. “I feel like we can sneak back in there.”

USC continued its tear through the South on Saturday with a dominant performance, if one that got sloppy late, in front of 49,337 at Folsom Field. Darnold, now fully recovered from a shaky start, was near flawless, completing 21 of 34 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns. He also added a 24-yard rushing touchdown. It was his first game without a turnover this season. Jones added to the best USC rushing season in a decade with 142 more yards in 25 carries.

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USC’s defense was so impenetrable early that almost all 11 players broke out into an impromptu dance to the Ying Yang Twins’ “Get Low” during a pause in the middle of the second quarter.

“I don’t know,” said safety Ajene Harris, who followed his shimmying with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. “I was feeling it.”

In a week of upheaval in the top 10, USC (9-2, 7-1 in the Pac-12) lurks on the very edge of playoff relevance, in need of much more chaos but quietly positioning itself to feast on the scraps.

For now, USC will content itself with the division crown. The Trojans clinched a spot in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 1 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. They’ll likely play either Stanford or Washington State, though Washington’s slim chances remain alive.

Before USC can address its more unlikely dreams, lingering problems remain. The defense let up late. USC’s offense sputtered early. It was again listless on fourth down (one of three) and struggled on third down (four of 14).

But the defense was smothering in the first 30 minutes. The Buffaloes did not score in the first half. Darnold capitalized on the cushion and connected on a 10-yard fade to Michael Pittman Jr. in the second quarter and an 18-yard slant to Deontay Burnett for another score.

Colorado (5-5, 2-5) tried to steal points before halftime with a late drive. Instead, Harris stole a Steven Montez pass, tiptoed along the sideline and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown.

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A smart Darnold scramble gave USC a 27-0 lead in the third quarter.

For the second week in a row, USC made a blowout interesting. On the very next play after Darnold’s score, no one covered Colorado receiver Juwann Winfree, who caught a Montez pass and practically jogged to a 79-yard touchdown.

On the next USC possession four Colorado players penetrated USC’s punt protection. Nate Landman blocked it. Kyle Trego recovered and stumbled down to the one-yard line. Phillip Lindsay punched in the touchdown to make it 27-14.

It was enough to get nervous over. The scare ended when USC fed Jones, who set up a USC field goal by rumbling 25 yards to inside Colorado’s 10-yard line. Colorado defender Evan Worthington was draped on Jones’ back for many of those yards. Jones undraped him and continued.

After a Colorado field goal, Jones scored from 20 yards out on a cutback that left him alone on one half of the field.

“They all went to the right,” Jones said. “That’s why I went left.”

Jones has now rushed for a combined 552 yards with five touchdowns in the last three games. He has 1,224 rushing yards on the season. He moved up to sixth on USC’s all-time rushing list, passing Reggie Bush and Mike Garrett.

Afterward, he wanted to talk playoffs.

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Linebacker Cameron Smith urged caution. He said it wasn’t time to think about possibilities.

“I think we’ve got to look forward to UCLA and the Pac-12 championship, and that’s all we can take care of,” Smith said. “Whatever happens after that — it’s everyone’s dream to play in a playoff. But we’re living in the now.”

The now was worth living for coach Clay Helton, who wrapped offensive coordinator Tee Martin in a hug coming off the field.

“Each year you try to improve,” Helton said. “We weren’t in this position last year. And now we are.”

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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