LAS VEGAS — The only blemish in USC’s 11-win regular season had been a one-point loss to Utah in October. Thanks to the Pac-12’s decision to turn its championship game into a matchup between its two best teams instead of division winners, the Trojans had an opportunity to make that loss moot and advance to their first College Football Playoff appearance in Lincoln Riley’s first season as head coach.
But one blemish turned into two on Friday night, as No. 11 Utah played spoiler and proved it has USC’s number this season.
The Utes scored 24 straight points at one point and went on to dominate No. 4 USC 47-24 to win their second straight Pac-12 title and likely keep the Trojans out of the fourth playoff spot.
“You come as far as this team has come and this program has come in the last 12 months, and obviously to not get it done, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” Riley said after the game. “They were definitely the better team tonight. They deserve it.”
“Our players never stopped believing,” Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We had a chip on our shoulder. We got the message loud and clear that people were underestimating us.”
In what felt like a tangential version of the matchup between the teams earlier this season, the Utes’ slow start did not hold them back. USC dominated the first quarter and raced to a 17-3 lead early thanks to a few more Heisman-worthy plays by quarterback Caleb Williams, who finished the game with 363 passing yards, 21 rushing yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
But it all unraveled in a hurry for USC. After pulling off a miraculous 59-yard run that had him gasping for air and walking gingerly, Williams never quite looked the same.
Afterward, Riley said that Williams “popped” his hamstring on that long first-quarter run.
“I asked him at one point, I was like, ‘Are you 50 percent?'” Riley said. “And I mean, he was not even close to 50 percent. I definitely thought about taking him out. … He wouldn’t have let me. He wouldn’t even let me take him out at the end.”
Riley called the performance one of the gutsiest he has witnessed. Williams, meanwhile, described the feeling of his injury as that of an old rubber band.
“The rest of the game I felt it,” Williams said. But a person that I admire is Kobe [Bryant]and he always said the game is bigger than what you’re feeling.”
As Williams was nursing the injury, Utah was settling in. During the second quarter, quarterback Cameron Rising put together two touchdown drives at the end of the half to tie the score at 17.
In the second half, it became clear Williams was hurt. He favored his left side and was visibly limping. He showed some hesitation as he dropped back, and when the USC defense was on the field, he rode the stationary bike on the sideline to stay loose. At one point, backup quarterback Miller Moss grabbed his helmet and appeared to warm up, but Williams remained under center.
Though Williams stayed in the game, he was no longer the player that spearheaded one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. Having been unable to establish the run early, a hobbled Williams looked frozen in the pocket, and it all but sapped USC’s scoring prowess. Williams was uncharacteristically sacked four times, and his throws lacked the pinpoint accuracy and strength they’ve had all season.
The Utes took advantage. Whittingham said postgame that Utah “smelled blood in the water” when they noticed Williams was hurt in the third quarter and made a concerted effort to bring more pressure.
Utah not only pressured Williams plenty, but on offense it went back to its most reliable option against the USC defense: tight ends. Dalton Kincaid and Thomas Yasmin combined for 121 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown pass from Rising to Yassmin that pushed the lead back to 10 after USC had cut it to three in the fourth quarter.
By the time running back Ja’Quinden Jackson broke off a 53-yard touchdown run to put the Utes up by 16, the result was all but set in stone.
“I felt we took it a little personal,” Rising said. “We saw all that as disrespect. We wanted to go out and prove a point.”
Rising, a senior, finished with 310 yards passing to six receivers and three touchdowns. He continued to have success against USC and was selected the game’s most valuable player postgame as the Utes once again did what no other team could all season: outscore and outgain the Trojans. Utah finished with 533 total yards to USC’s 411. The Utes also finished with a title that Rising leaned into during the postgame 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 a hurt quarterback and no title to show for their turnaround season.
“We’re not going to walk around the funeral like this is some. We made a lot of progress to get to this point,” Riley said. Part of it is when you get to these moments, these big games, are groups that have been there before. [Utah] certainly have. A lot of our team has not.”
The prevailing sentiment from Riley after the game was that the Trojans had run into a team that not only outplayed them, but also had more experience. The Utes indeed provide a stark contrast to USC’s roster makeup. The transfer portal has defined Riley’s first year at USC, and it’s evident that Utah’s continuity is its strength.
Yet as Riley debriefed on the loss and talked about preparing for USC’s bowl game, he was sure to look ahead toward next season, when the Trojans might have some continuity but won’t shy away from using change to gain an edge.
“There’s going to be a lot of changes. That’s college football in this day and age,” Riley said. “We know what our mission is–to be in that same locker room and feeling a whole helluva lot different than we do right now. We’ll bring in a couple pieces who will help us on that journey.”