Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:06 PM
PHOENIX — Arizona State has gone into a small tailspin, losing three straight games, all in conference.
Even that hasn’t been enough to knock the Sun Devils out of what’s become a muddled race in the Pac-12 South Division.
"We’re still competing for this," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. "This thing is far from over. We’re going to fight and scratch all the way down until the end."
The North Division race appears to be Oregon’s to lose.
The second-ranked and undefeated Ducks (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12) have been nearly untouchable so far this season and are coming off a record-breaking performance against Southern California last week. They still need to play well with No. 13 Oregon State and No. 16 Stanford just a game back at 5-1 and still to come for the Ducks.
The race for the South is not so clear cut.
Arizona State was out in front when the conference season started, thanks to USC’s opening loss to Stanford and the Sun Devils’ wins over Utah, California and Colorado.
After Arizona State lost to Oregon, it was USC’s turn to be in control of the South. The Trojans didn’t stay there long, falling back after losses to Arizona and the Ducks.
Now UCLA has taken the wheel.
Once 1-2 in the Pac-12, the 17th-ranked Bruins have surged to the South lead after beating Utah, Arizona State and Arizona.
Heading into this weekend’s games, UCLA leads the division at 4-2. No. 21 USC is a half-game back at 4-3 and Arizona State still has a chance at 3-3.
The way things have gone so far in the South, the lead could change three more times over the final three weeks of the season, teams winning by 30 one week, losing by 40 the next.
"College football is really interesting to me," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "I’m used to where you get a 10-point lead on somebody, that’s a pretty darn good lead. I’m used to games coming down the last two or three drives of a game in the pros, but in college it’s just a totally different animal. Boy, it’s exciting. It’s wild, it’s crazy, it’s exciting, it’s emotional. It’s a lot of fun."
This weekend could mark the end of one team’s run to the division title.
While UCLA is expected to roll past winless-in-conference Washington State, Arizona State and USC meet in the Coliseum at high noon on Saturday.
Both are searching for ways to end losing streaks.
Arizona State has fallen off after opening the season 5-1, blown out by Oregon and unable to come up with the big plays when it needed them in losses to UCLA and Oregon State.
Once a national-title contender, USC is reeling after allowing 101 points and over 1,300 yards of offense in losses to Arizona and the Ducks.
If the Trojans win, they’ll be right there in the race for the South. If the Sun Devils win, they’ll still be within at least a game of the division lead and tied with USC for second.
"We have in no way given up our focus on our goals on wanting to be a champion, but we just have got to win a game," Graham said. "That is our focus, to go win a game. Our guys are very motivated to have the opportunity play USC this week and obviously, it’s a big challenge as well."
While Arizona State and UCLA still have three conference games left, USC is down to two, closing the season with a nonconference game against Notre Dame.
With little margin for error, USC has to beat Arizona State this weekend and faces a huge game against rival UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 17.
But, should the Trojans win both of those, they would win the South and earn a spot in the Pac-12 title game on Nov. 20.
"They can control the rest of their season," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "There’s a lot of teams in the country that can’t after everything that’s happened. After screwing games up, we’re fortunate to be in that situation."
UCLA is coming off a somewhat unexpected 66-10 rout over Arizona and is a two touchdown favorite over Mike Leach’s Cougars on Saturday.
It gets a little tougher after that.
Despite its two straight losses and problems on defense, USC still has one of the nation’s most prolific offenses and it will be a rivalry game, where almost anything can and usually does happen.
After that, the Bruins have to gather themselves for another difficult game, facing Stanford and its power running game in the season finale on Nov. 24.
UCLA won the South last season because USC was ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, but will have to earn it this season. That starts with avoiding a letdown against Washington State.
"They haven’t been distracted up to this point," Mora said. "They’ve done a tremendous job of focusing on the here-and-now, the goal that’s directly in front of them."
One goal, at least for three teams, is still to win the Pac-12 South.
That could change this weekend — and probably will.
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