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As COVID-19 cases mount in Pac-12, USC’s game next week appears in jeopardy

USC players pose for a photo after their game against Utah on Nov. 22, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
USC players pose for a photo after their win last Saturday night at Utah. The Trojans’ game scheduled for Saturday against Colorado was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns for USC.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Before a coronavirus outbreak led to the cancellation of USC’s game against Colorado on Saturday and the second half of the Trojans’ shortened season was called into serious question, their upcoming opponent was forced to confront a similar plight.

Washington State was cleared to play Stanford and set to board a plane bound for San Jose last Friday morning when, according to the Spokesman-Review, athletic director Pat Chun was informed four additional players had either tested positive for the coronavirus or came in close contact with a positive case. Nine players were now in quarantine, and the Cougars suddenly were below the 53-player threshold set by the Pac-12 Conference. They never got on the plane.

The fallout wasn’t finished. Two days later, Washington State lost a second game, as the Pac-12 was forced to cancel the Apple Cup, its annual rivalry with Washington scheduled for Friday.

Now, just as Washington State’s outbreak appears under control, positive cases at USC have put next Friday night’s matchup against the Cougars at the Coliseum in jeopardy.

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Oregon State used a late quarterback sneak to defeat No. 15 Oregon, and Stanford beat California on a blocked point-after try in the Big Game.

As recently as Thursday morning, the Trojans appeared on track to play Colorado on Saturday. Coach Clay Helton said he believed they were in “a very good place.” In spite of two positive cases earlier in the week, public health officials still cleared USC to practice Wednesday afternoon. The program’s safety protocols, Helton said, “had really limited the scope.”

Only a few hours later, another player tested positive, triggering further contact tracing protocols and leaving USC below the minimum threshold of scholarship players on its offensive line. The Pac-12 requires that teams have at least seven scholarship linemen available, as well as four interior defensive linemen and one quarterback.

The Trojans have 15 offensive linemen currently on scholarship.

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It’s still unclear how many USC players will spend the weekend in quarantine — or how long they must remain isolated after that. Seven players, including several starters, were in quarantine Thursday morning. That number presumably grew with a third positive case — enough, at least, to force the Pac-12 to declare the game a no contest by Thursday night.

USC did not identify affected players or disclose how many more were impacted by additional contact tracing protocols. But any deemed a close contact of that third positive case would have to quarantine for the next 14 days. A “close contact” is defined by Los Angeles County public health guidelines as anyone within six feet for a total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.

The two initial positive cases could be cleared to play by next Friday, if they’ve isolated for at least 10 days and produce a negative test. But those players considered to be close contacts via contact tracing presumably would have to isolate through the following Saturday.

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That would leave them unavailable for Friday night’s game with Washington State — and leave USC again in danger of falling below the minimum thresholds set by the conference.

If the seven players who entered quarantine this week came into contact with the positive case only on the team’s return flight from Utah, the Pac-12 could push the game back to Sunday in order to keep it intact. But that’s only assuming those isolated players would offer enough reinforcements along USC’s offensive line.

Those who entered isolation after the latest round of contact tracing presumably won’t be able to return to the field until at least Dec. 10, just two days before USC is scheduled to take on UCLA in its season finale at the Rose Bowl.

With just two games left in its season — and one of those already in doubt — USC remains undefeated atop the Pac-12 South. Colorado is the only other team unscathed in the division, but the Buffaloes have played one fewer game and won’t have a chance to take on the 3-0 Trojans after Saturday’s game was canceled.

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A torn ACL derailed JT Daniels’ promising career at USC, but he didn’t let adversity block his rise to the top of a crowded quarterback room at Georgia.

As the conference currently stands, USC will have to play at least once more to qualify for the Pac-12 title game, according to tiebreaker rules established before the season. Teams must play no less than one fewer conference game than the average number of games played by all Pac-12 teams. As of right now, conference teams are on pace to play an average of 4½ games, which would be rounded up to five.

A new stay-at-home order in Los Angeles County also could derail the season. The order, announced Friday night and set to go in effect Monday, prohibits all public and private gatherings among individuals not in the same household.

How college football fits into that remains to be seen. A USC spokesperson said Friday that the university would seek guidance from public health officials.


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