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USC set to play Washington in the Pac-12 title game

Dylan Morris #9 of the Washington Huskies looks to throw the ball.
Washington quarterback Dylan Morris looks to throw during a game against Stanford on Dec. 5.
(Abbie Parr / Getty Images)

Its Pac-12 title fate was assured hours earlier in the Colorado snow, long before the team bus even rolled up outside the Rose Bowl. Even before the Trojans beat UCLA 43-38 on Saturday, USC had already clinched its place in the Pac-12 title game for the first time since 2017.

What wasn’t clear at the time of kickoff Saturday was whom the Trojans would play at the Coliseum next Friday. A complex mess of tiebreakers and COVID-19 chaos called into question which opponent would represent the Pac-12 North — or whether the conference’s other division would be represented at all.

But by the start of the fourth quarter of its meeting with the Bruins, the Pac-12 had made a decision. At least, a tentative one.

USC will face Washington next Friday at 5 p.m. to decide the champion of the Pac-12’s unusual, shortened season. Assuming, of course, that the Huskies are actually able to play the game.

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Kevon Slovis’ fifth touchdown pass, with 16 seconds left, lifted USC to a 43-38 win over UCLA and a 5-0 record. Up next is the Pac-12 title game.

An outbreak of coronavirus left Washington this week without the minimum 53 scholarship players to play its regular-season finale against Oregon, the team behind it in the North division standings. With less than a week remaining until the game, there’s no guarantee that enough Huskies will return from isolation for that matchup to continue.

If Washington is unable to play, it’s unclear where the Pac-12 would turn next. The Ducks were a victory away on Saturday from upending their North division foes and earning their place in the conference championship with USC. But they never got the chance.

Colorado could also be an option. With just one loss, the Buffaloes have a better record than Oregon and didn’t get the shot to meet USC earlier in the season, when four positive coronavirus cases at USC forced the conference to declare a no-contest.

For now, the Pac-12 is doing its best to pit division winners against each other. But the only part about its conference championship that remains assured is that USC will be there.

Assuming, of course, that nothing goes awry before then.

More runway

After shrugging off USC’s worst rushing performance in more than two full years, Graham Harrell sent a message early on Saturday. The offensive coordinator called six straight passes to open the game, seemingly intent on upsetting USC fans. Of the Trojans’ first 17 plays, 15 were passes.

But that’s when Harrell suddenly turned to the ground game, and the rushing lanes began to open up for Vavae Malepeai. He carried the ball four times in a row for 27 yards, as USC worked its way into the red zone for an ill-fated field-goal attempt.

With UCLA possibly hosting one more game Dec. 19, the Bruins didn’t hold a farewell ceremony for their seniors and graduate transfers before facing USC.

It was just the beginning for Malepeai, who gave the Trojans their first consistent backfield presence all season long. The senior finished with 19 carries for 110 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown.

He was the only one who did much to reinvigorate the run game. Markese Stepp had just one carry, while Stephen Carr had seven for five yards.

O-line intact

Two weeks after a coronavirus outbreak nearly sidelined all but a few of their available linemen, USC’s offensive line was finally back to full strength Saturday.

Andrew Vorhees, who missed last week’s game because of COVID-19 exposure, returned to his usual spot at left guard. Reserve center Justin Dedich and backup guard Liam Douglass also rejoined the team, meaning every Trojan previously in quarantine has now returned.

USC thought it might be without another starting lineman after Liam Jimmons suffered a subluxation of his elbow against Washington State. But Jimmons, who sat out the second half last week, stepped back in at right guard.


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