By DAN GREENSPAN, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — While the Pac-12 North was being decided in Seattle, Pac-12 South champion Southern California was enjoying an overdue day off.
Tight end Tyler Petite went to the Bay Area to see his girlfriend. Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe watched rivalry games play out across the country.
Quarterback Sam Darnold was flipping back and forth between Notre Dame-Stanford and the Apple Cup, where Washington’s 41-14 win over Washington State gave the 14th-ranked Cardinal the division title and a spot in the Pac-12 championship game Friday night against the rested 11th-ranked Trojans.
USC will be the first team from a Power 5 conference to play in a conference championship game after a bye week since Oklahoma and Auburn in 2004.
It wasn’t intentional. The Pac-12 has to accommodate USC and Stanford’s rivalry games against the Fighting Irish and a nine-game conference schedule. But it could have created a problem if the Cougars had won the Pac-12 North since Washington State would have lost a day of preparation traveling to Santa Clara, California, and exacerbated the disparity.
The Cardinal only have a short bus ride to Levi’s Stadium to worry about, and Stanford head coach David Shaw has no issues facing a recharged USC team.
“If anybody in the country deserved it, it’s them. I mean, going 12 straight weeks without a bye, especially in this conference playing nine conference games and Notre Dame, it’s brutal,” Shaw said.
USC spent much of the season hindered by injuries, but its break came when the team is largely healthy.
Outside linebacker Porter Gustin (toe) will not play in the Pac-12 title game, USC head coach Clay Helton said, but the rest of the roster is good to go. Gustin missed eight of USC’s last 10 games after he was injured against Stanford on Sept. 9 and has a “better opportunity” to play in a bowl game, Helton said.
For Petite, the bye week gave him more time to recover from a shoulder injury. Imatorbhebhe was happy to set aside the mental grind of the game for a few days.
“Just got to rest,” Imatorbhebhe said. “It was awesome. My mind needed it as well as my body, so it was cool.”
But the time in front of the television reminded USC how difficult it will be to beat Stanford twice in the same season. Three turnovers in the fourth quarter allowed Stanford to pull away from the Fighting Irish for a 38-20 win. Darnold stopped watching early in the second half to get dinner and was initially surprised by the late separation.
“My dad texted me the final score and I was just like, ‘Whoa.’ So I went back and watched the highlights and they were just really physical. We’re preparing really hard for that type of game and it’s going to be really fun,” Darnold said.
Darnold’s two interceptions were the only significant mistakes on offense in a 42-24 win over Stanford as USC ran for 307 yards and threw for 316 yards.
Petite believes the passing offense is better than it was in the second week of the season because of the development of receivers Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr. Neither the redshirt freshman Vaughns nor the sophomore Pittman caught a pass against Stanford, but are now reliable options.
“With the receivers kind of coming into their own, Tyler really stepping up and Pitt really stepping into his role, too, and just gaining Sam’s trust, I think that was the biggest thing,” Petite said.
They should free up Deontay Burnett, who had nine receptions for 121 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting at the Coliseum. However, Stanford is allowing an average of 195.25 yards passing over its last eight games, intercepting 12 passes while giving up seven touchdown passes.
Stanford had won three straight in the series, including a 41-22 triumph in the 2015 Pac-12 title game, prior to this season. Bye or no bye, USC has not forgotten those losses.
“We would have been excited to play Wazzu or Washington, too, but we do have an extensive history against these guys. They beat us three times in a row and that score’s not really settled, so I know we are really fired up to go and compete against them again,” Imatorbhebhe said.
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