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Utah vs. Washington should be a bruiser

Insta-reaction to Pac-12 developments on and off the field …

(In case you missed Friday Night Four, an Apple Cup special edition, here’s the link.)

1. Utah vs. Washington, Part IV.

The Hotline is of the mindset that Friday’s conference title showdown in Levi’s Stadium is more than a rematch of UW’s early-season 21-7 victory.

It’s a rematch of a rematch of a rematch, the fourth installment of what has become a terrific series between two of the best programs — and best defenses — in the conference.

The mini-rivalry began with the 2016 showdown, a duel of ranked teams won by the Huskies on Dante Pettis 58-yard punt return touchdown …

It continued with the 2017 late-season thriller, in which UW scored 10 points in the final minute to escape with a 33-30 win …

Then came the 2018 Week Three slugfest in Salt Lake City, in which Utah short-circuited itself to defeat with three turnovers and poor red-zone play.

Yes, the Huskies won all three collisions, but by just 7, 3 and 14 points.

Every game was taut, physical and well worth watching.

We suspect No. 4 will be, as well.

2. ASU’s secret sauce.

Credit the Sun Devils for a stunning comeback in Tucson, where they scored the final 20 points, won 41-40 and left their arch-rival devastated.

The formula for victory was not new. It wasn’t new for ASU, for the Pac-12, or for any team in the history of the sport: The Sun Devils do not beat themselves, and they don’t beat themselves better than anybody in the conference.

They have a chance to win every game simply by playing fundamentally sound football — by avoiding knucklehead plays, drive-killing penalties and game-altering turnovers.

To wit: The Sun Devils have just nine giveaways in 12 games, the lowest total in the conference and the fifth-lowest total in the FBS.

That ball security is due, in part, to a senior quarterback, Manny Wilkins, who has thrown one interception for every 83 attempts.

Compare that to the numbers from other top passers:

Gardner Minshew: One interception for every 68 attempts.

Justin Herbert: One every 46 attempts.

Jake Browning: One every 33 attempts.

Wilkins isn’t the most talented quarterback in the conference and doesn’t always make big plays. But there’s nobody better at avoiding bad plays, which is, after all, goal No. 1.

ASU’s formula isn’t complicated, but the execution of said formula is an exceedingly difficult state-of-existence to maintain.

3. How the Devils did it.

ASU’s fourth-quarter comeback from a 40-21 deficit instantly carved a place in Territorial Cup lore, partly because of the size of the rally and the limited time available; partly because it kept the Wildcats from a bowl berth; and partly because it was the first Herm Edwards-Kevin Sumlin duel.

A soaring win for the Devils to close a better-than-expected year, and a gut-punch loss for the Wildcats to close a deeply disappointing season.

How did it unfold?

Arizona took a 40-21 lead late in the third quarter. Then came the following possessions:

ASU: field goal (12 plays, 66 yards)
Arizona: punt
ASU: touchdown (8 plays, 80 yards)
Arizona: interception
ASU: field goal (4 plays, 1 yard)
Arizona: fumble
ASU: touchdown (1 play, 22 yards)
Arizona: missed field goal

Don’t beat yourself, don’t panic, and don’t give up. It’s amazing what can happen.

4. North vs. South, the (almost) final verdict.

There is one more cross-division duel, and it counts for plenty. But nor should the outcome of the football championship game offset the mountainous evidence that points to a deep divide within the conference:

The results support what our eyes witnessed: The North was vastly superior, winning 15 of the 24 inter-division games.

That includes three wins by the South over Oregon State.

Remove the Beavers’ results from the ledger, and the North went 14-6 against the South.

That includes Utah, the South champ, getting swept by the Washington schools; and it includes Arizona State, the South runner-up, going 0-3 against North teams not named Oregon State.

The final standings are not pretty:

Utah: 6-3
ASU: 5-4
Arizona: 4-5
USC: 4-5
UCLA: 3-6
Colorado: 2-7

This is the first time since 2012 that the South produced only one team with a division record of 6-3 or better.

What accounts for the division disparity?

The North has better coaching, better and healthier quarterback play, stouter defenses, and more programs in a mature state of development:

UCLA is starting over, as are the Arizona schools (to a slightly lesser extent), while USC and Colorado went in reverse.

5. Could USC actually retain Clay Helton?

That certainly appears to be a distinct possibility, as difficult as it might be to believe.

The Trojans are 5-7, their worst record since the 2000 season.

They lost to UCLA and Notre Dame.

They lost to all three California schools for the first time in two decades.

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