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USC's Pac-12 fate could be decided before Saturday's game, and some players can't bear to look

USC's Pac-12 fate could be decided before Saturday's game, and some players can't bear to look
Linebacker Porter Gustin is one of the USC players who will probably be watching the progress of Colorado's and Utah's games Saturday. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Porter Gustin sounded indifferent Wednesday when deciding whether he would check the scores of the Colorado and Utah games before USC plays UCLA on Saturday evening,

"Eh, I'll probably hear about it. I won't check myself," he said. "If I'm correct, we need both of those teams to lose, so either way one of them's gonna lose."

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Gustin was correct. USC can still win the Pac-12 Conference South Division with a win over UCLA coupled with losses by Utah and Colorado, which each have two games left in conference play.

But Gustin had the timeline wrong: he was under the impression that Colorado and Utah play each other this week. The teams don't play until next week. Which means the outcomes of their games Saturday will drastically alter the stakes of USC's game. If both win, USC is eliminated. If both lose, USC can clinch by defeating UCLA.

Gustin was soon informed and he brightened

"Oh, they don't play each other this week?" Gustin said. "Oh OK, I'll be looking then. I'll be checking."

The late kickoff of USC's game puts it in an unusual position. Colorado and Utah play early games Saturday. Each game will conclude well before USC even arrives at the Rose Bowl.

Two losses are unlikely — Colorado will host Washington State, undefeated in conference play, but Utah hosts Oregon, which has only one Pac-12 win. But just one keeps USC's hopes alive.

USC players are split over how to approach the afternoon.

Most players informally surveyed said they would try to avoid the results of the early games.

"I really don't, I want to say care or mind, about what's going on," cornerback Adoree' Jackson said. "I wish we wasn't in that position. We wouldn't have to worry about nobody else."

There were generally two explanations why the players preferred ignorance.

As safety Chris Hawkins explained, "If you're worried about other people then you're not worried about focusing on what you have to do."

And defensive end Rasheem Green noted, "If we lose, it's not gonna matter."

But Coach Clay Helton sounded skeptical of his players' honesty.

"They're a lot stronger men than me," Helton said, laughing. "I'll be focused on our job, but you know, you're only human. I'll definitely — I'll look at the scores."

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Helton said he wasn't worried about the outcome affecting the team shortly before a rivalry game. He said the team has demonstrated focus through its six-game winning streak. For instance, despite a crucial game against Washington looming, USC still convincingly dispatched several weaker opponents first.

And Saturday's opponent helps: USC never enjoys losing to UCLA, no matter the stakes.

If Colorado and Utah lose, Gustin explained, "I think it'll help get us up and get the energy up. Either way, I think the energy's going to be up, though."

Super scout team

At his news conference Tuesday, Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer learned about a quirky NCAA allowance. Older players, he was informed — even former NFL standouts — are allowed to participate on a college program's scout team. No NCAA rule is stopping Matt Leinart from practicing against USC's defense.

Meyer's eyebrows shot up.

"Say that again?" he said. "In practice? I did not know that. Like padded practice, he's running plays?"

Meyer took out his phone and held it up to his ear.

"I'll be right back," he said.

The rule has become controversial after Alabama Coach Nick Saban recently revealed that he used former Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson to simulate Louisiana State running back Leonard Fournette. Coaches such as Notre Dame's Brian Kelly have voiced displeasure with what they perceive as a loophole.

But USC has been using such players, on occasion, for years.

Starting on Tuesday, USC began using fullback Soma Vainuku, who graduated last season, on the scout team. USC has suffered several injuries that have depleted its service teams, and Vainuku was looking for some repetitions.

In 2011, receiver Keary Colbert, now an assistant coach for the Trojans, practiced in the spring, eight years after graduating from USC.

"The rule's been around for a while," Helton said. "I remember Keary being out here, and some of the other guys. They want to work and they're in-between teams, and all of a sudden you go down on service players a little bit. It's a great asset to have."

Quick hits

Defensive tackle Josh Fatu (sprained ankle) did not practice and remains doubtful for Saturday. Helton said Fatu won't play if he doesn't practice Thursday.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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