LAS VEGAS — USC’s only 11-win regular-season blemish was a one-point loss to Utah in October. Thanks to the Pac-12’s decision to turn their championship game into a showdown between their top two teams instead of division winners, the Trojans had the opportunity to make that loss moot and move on to their first. college football playoff appearance in Lincoln Riley’s first season as the head coach.
But one blemish turned into two on Friday night, as Utah’s No. 11 played the spoiler and proved he has USC’s number this season.
The Utes scored 24 straight points at one point and outscored No. 4 USC 47-24 to claim their second straight Pac-12 title and likely keep the Trojans out of fourth place in the playoffs.
“You’ve come as far as this team has come and this program has come in the last 12 months, and obviously not to do that is a tough pill to swallow,” Riley said after the game. “They were definitely the better team tonight. They deserved it.”
“Our players never stopped believing in it,” Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We had a chip on our shoulder. We got the message loud and clear that people underestimated us.”
In what looked like a tangential version of the matchup between the teams earlier this season, the Utes’ slow start didn’t hold them back. USC dominated the first quarter and quickly took a 17-3 lead thanks to some Heisman-worthy plays from quarterback Caleb Williams, who finished the game with 363 passing yards, 21 rushing yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
But it all happened in haste for USC. After pulling off a miraculous 59-yard run that had him gasping and gingerly treading, Williams never quite looked the same.
Afterwards, Riley said Williams “jumped” his hamstring during that long run in the first quarter.
“I asked him at one point, I was like, ‘Are you at 50%? ‘” Riley said. “And I mean, he wasn’t even close to 50%. I really thought about taking him out. … He wouldn’t have let me. He wouldn’t even let me take him out in the end.”
Riley called the performance one of the most daring he has witnessed. Williams, meanwhile, described his injury as feeling like an old rubber band.
“The rest of the game, I felt it,” Williams said. “But one person I look up to is Kobe. [Bryant]and he always said the game is bigger than how you feel.”
As Williams tended to the injury, Utah settled in. During the second quarter, quarterback Cameron Rising had two touchdown passes late in the half to tie the score at 17.
In the second half, it became clear that Williams was injured. He favored his left side and was visibly limping. He showed some hesitation when backing up, and when the USC defense was on the field, he rolled the stationary bike onto the sideline to stay loose. At one point, backup quarterback Miller Moss grabbed his helmet and appeared to warm up, but Williams stayed under center.
Although Williams remained in the game, he was no longer the player who led one of the most explosive offenses in the country. Failing to establish the run early, a hobbled Williams seemed frozen in the pocket, and it all but undermined USC’s scoring prowess. Williams was uncharacteristically sacked four times, and his shots lacked the accuracy and force they’ve had all season.
The Utes took advantage. Whittingham said after the game that Utah “smelled blood in the water” when the team noticed Williams was hurt in the third quarter and made a concerted effort to put on more pressure.
Utah not only put a lot of pressure on Williams, but on offense he reverted to his most reliable option against the USC defense: tight ends. Dalton Kincaid and Thomas Yassmin combined for 121 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown pass from Rising to Yassmin that cut the lead to 10 after USC cut it to three in the fourth quarter.
By the time running back Ja’Quinden Jackson broke up a 53-yard touchdown run to give the Utes a 16-yard lead, the result was all but set in stone.
“I felt we took it a little personal,” Rising said. “We saw it all as disrespect. We wanted to go out and prove a point.”
Rising, a senior, finished with 310 passing yards to six receivers and three touchdowns. He continued to have success against USC and was selected after the game’s Most Valuable Player game as the Utes once again did what no other team could all season: beat and outperform Trojans. Utah finished with 533 total yards to USC’s 411. The Utes also finished with a title Rising honed in on during the post-game ceremony: “Trojan killers.”
The win sends the Utes back to the Rose Bowl. The Trojans, meanwhile, were left with not just two losses to the same team, but an injured quarterback and no titles to show for their turnaround season.
“We’re not going to walk around like it’s a funeral. We’ve come a long way to get to this,” Riley said. “Part of it is when you come to those times, those big games, those are groups that have been there before. [Utah] certainly have. A lot of our team didn’t.”
Riley’s overriding feeling after the match was that the Trojans had encountered a team that not only had outplayed them, but also had more experience. The Utes indeed offer a stark contrast to USC’s roster composition. The transfer portal defined Riley’s first year at USC, and it’s clear that Utah’s continuity is his strength.
Still, as Riley recounted the loss and talked about preparing for the USC bowling game, he was sure to look ahead to next season, when the Trojans might have some continuity but wouldn’t hesitate. not to use change to gain an advantage.
“There’s going to be a lot of changes. It’s college football these days,” Riley said. “We know what our mission is – to be in the same locker room and feel completely different than what we’re doing right now. We’ll be bringing a few pieces that will help us on this journey.”