LAS VEGAS — Throughout the season, USC has relied on quarterback Caleb Williams’ ability to improvise on his feet. His laps away from defenders, fleeing the line of scrimmage just to turn around and take off for a positive play kept the Trojans alive for many weeks and became fodder for his Heisman Trophy reel.
But what fourth-ranked USC got in the second half of Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship game was Williams standing in the pocket as Utah’s pass rush crashed down on him. , unable to move as he tucked the ball in and took a sack. Then the quarterback limped off the field as USC braced for another punt.
With Williams relegated to mortality with an injured leg, the magic of the USC season quickly evaporated with him. First, USC’s 14-point first-half lead is gone. Then, the Trojans’ hopes of making the college football playoff also rose with a 47-24 loss to the 11th-place Utes at Allegiant Stadium.
“Our game didn’t really look like the way we’ve played most of this year,” head coach Lincoln Riley said.
The first quarter looked like a coronation ceremony for Williams and the Trojans (11-2). He leapt into the air to complete a 50-yard pass to Tahj Washington, then soft-shot Washington on the next play for a touchdown and the game’s first points.
On the next drive, Williams threw a 58-yard run. He broke two tackles on the play, then directed his receivers who to block before sliding to the Utah 12. It was on that play that Williams pulled his hamstring.
“Do you already have an old rubber band? It was kind of like that,” Williams said. “The rest of the game I felt but one person I look up to is Kobe [Bryant] and he always said the game is bigger than how you feel.
When USC faced a fourth-and-one three plays later, no one covered running back Raleek Brown out of the backfield in play action and Williams found him for a 3-yard score.
Meanwhile, the USC defense was holding its end of the bargain. No one expected USC to throw a shutout, but after safety Calen Bullock interrupted a third pass on the goal line, Utah had to settle for a field goal on their first practice .
When safety Bryson Shaw arrived to interrupt a third pass on the next drive and force a punt, USC had the opportunity to go up three scores.
But a pair of conflicting fourth down decisions from head coach Lincoln Riley breathed life into Utah (10-3).
Facing a fourth and a goal at the Utah 3, Riley opted for Denis Lynch to throw a field goal to make it a 17-3 game. Riley had already gone for fourth down twice in the game, but opted to go the conservative route.
Then, after Shaw recovered a forced fumble by Max Williams, the Trojans quickly faced fourth-and-8th Utah 37. Riley kept the offense on the field and Caleb Williams’ pass to Jordan Addison went incomplete. .
The Utes took the turnover on the downs and went for 63 yards for their first touchdown of the game. They gave USC enough time to respond before halftime, but the Trojans stalled in midfield and kicked. Utah took advantage of the two minutes remaining at halftime, rushing for 81 yards on 14 plays to even the score.
But while it was the USC defense that gave up the points, it was the USC offense that put their counterpart in this situation with a 0-for-5 mark on third down in the first half. time.
Somehow, however, the USC defense got out of bounds to start the second half, forcing a punt. But Williams knocked down on first down, was sacked on second and handed over to Jones for a two-yard run on third.
As Utah took the lead on a 57-yard reception from Money Parks and USC only managed a third of a yard, Williams tried to recover on the sidelines. He rode a stationary bike, hopped side to side, and did high knees.
And he was able to summon some of his old magic. After Utah pushed the lead to 10, Williams imposed himself and the Trojans on the court, rushing on the only good leg for a third conversion and side sacks until that he delivers the ball to Mario Williams for a touchdown. After each play, Caleb Williams limped to the line of scrimmage, continuing.
“I asked him at one point, ‘Are you at 50%?’ It wasn’t even close to 50%,” Riley said. “I really thought about taking him out and he wouldn’t let me. In terms of the guys I’ve coached in this position, possibly the most daring performance I’ve ever seen.
But Utah roared with a 60-yard touchdown, tight end Thomas Yassmin running over Bullock and into the end zone. Williams was intercepted on the next drive, and Utah fullback Ja’Quinden Jackson ended any hopes of a Trojan comeback with a 53-yard touchdown run.
Williams, usually the panacea for Trojans, couldn’t carry a team that couldn’t run behind an injury-battered offensive line, and he couldn’t score an offense that seemingly broke every tackle attempt by a defender. from USC.
But he tried anyway, soaking up more sacks in the last minute until Riley saw enough and sent Miller Moss as backup. Williams could only limp, moments before Utah rushed onto the field in celebration.
California Daily Newspapers