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USC's loss to Utah clouds South Division in already-muddled Pac-12 races

USC's loss to Utah clouds South Division in already-muddled Pac-12 races
Utah wide receiver Solomon Enis, left, catches a touchdown as USC cornerback Isaiah Langley (24) defends during the second half on Saturday in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

There was talk among Pac-12 Conference coaches the past week about getting on with life.

That’s what happens when your teams are all but eliminated from the College Football Playoff race with half a season left.

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It was enough to make Arizona State coach Herm Edwards wax nostalgic about childhood days growing up in Monterey.

“If you were in the Rose Bowl and you were a West Coast team, that was really, really good,” he said. “Now if you’re not in the final four, you haven’t done anything. I don’t know about that.”

With no real title prospects and an officiating controversy that won’t go away, the Pac-12 did its best to get back to business this weekend, sorting through the standings, working out the chaotic North and South divisions and figuring out who gets to be in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

For USC, that meant traveling to Utah for a matchup that, national implications or not, has produced some entertaining football of late.

Twice in the past four seasons, the Trojans lost in the final minute at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Last fall at the Coliseum, they won by stopping a two-point conversion just short of the goal line with 42 seconds remaining.

“It’s one of those games you know is going to be a 60-minute game,” USC coach Clay Helton said before Saturday’s rematch. “And you’re going to have to play great football.”

So when his team raced to a 14-0 lead on defensive lineman Jay Tufele’s 48-yard fumble return in the first quarter, it figured that Utah would find a way to claw back into the game. But this time the Trojans had no answer for running back Zack Moss’ 136 yards on the ground and quarterback Tyler Huntley’s 341 yards through the air.

“I think it’s just a matter of us executing,” Huntley said. “And we’ve been doing a great job of that.”

The 41-28 loss doesn’t kill USC’s Rose Bowl chances, not by a long shot, but it does create a logjam with the Utes and Colorado. Helton didn’t have a lot of answers beyond talking about a stronger run game to take pressure off the defense.

“The fact of the matter is we have a three-horse race with three teams sitting at the top right now,” he said. “We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves.”

The situation is just as muddled in the North.

Stanford is still in the running after Thursday night’s cliff-hanger, the Cardinal preserving a victory by stopping Arizona State in the red zone as time ran out. It was a big turnaround for a team that had dropped from the AP Top 25 with consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Utah.

“For us, this was the kind of way we needed to win this football game,” coach David Shaw said. “For what we’ve done the last couple games, coming up short, not giving ourselves a chance – we gave ourselves a chance today.”

On a bigger stage, No. 12 Oregon traveled to No. 25 Washington State for a matchup that had just enough national juice to warrant a visit from ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

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If any Pac-12 team could claim to be on the fringes of the CFP race, it was the Ducks, even if their resume did not really warrant inclusion in the top 10 or so teams in the country.

But Oregon’s hopes ended abruptly on the Palouse, where Washington State jumped to a four-touchdown lead and hung on, winning 34-20 to keep pace with Stanford and another team that bounced back from defeat.

No. 15 Washington recovered from a crushing loss to Oregon two weeks ago by squeezing past Colorado as quarterback Jake Browning found incentive that had nothing to do with earning votes from the selection committee.

“Going into this game, I had five games left in my whole entire career here,” Browning said. “I’m not going to let one loss in a rivalry game affect the future.”

So, if the Pac-12 seems like a jumble of teams that haven’t quite met expectations, it might still be a lot of fun to watch with critical league games scheduled over the next few weeks.

Even the debate over how the conference has handled – or mishandled – officiating got a little more intense over the weekend with a Yahoo Sports report citing angry messages from Washington State coach Mike Leach to league officials.

“I won’t comment on private communications we have with coaches,” Commissioner Larry Scott said.

That’s the way it works in the Pac-12 nowadays. National ambitions have given way to something more parochial but intriguing nonetheless.

“That’s Pac-12 football at its finest,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, though he quickly added: “It’s a shame because we cannibalize each other.”

For now, at least, that will have to suffice.

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