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USC’s Playoff Hopes Come to Screeching Halt in Pac-12 Title Game

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LAS VEGAS — At the end of a 59-yard run on USC’s ninth offensive play of the Pac-12 championship game—a swerving, tackle-breaking sprint that should have convinced any last doubters about the deserving winner of the Heisman Trophy—Caleb Williams felt something unmistakably bad in his hamstring.

“You ever have an old rubber band?” Williams said, with a sardonic smile. “That’s kind of what it felt like.”

An old rubber band snapping. In the words of USC coach Lincoln Riley, his quarterback “popped a hamstring” on the play. It was the beginning of a cascading series of calamities that would wind up costing the Trojans a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff berth. After USC scored on its first three possessions for a 17–3 lead, everything fell apart in a 47–24 collapse against nemesis Utah that was celebrated wildly by Ohio State fans everywhere. The Buckeyes appear to have backed into the CFP by virtue of this result.

As Williams hobbled through the rest of the game, he said he tried to follow something Kobe Bryant once said: “The game is bigger than what you’re feeling.” Williams hung in there and kept dealing. Riley asked him at one point if he was even 50-percent healthy and whether backup Miller Moss needed to go in the game. “He was not even close to 50 percent,” Riley said. “He wouldn’t let me take him out. Wouldn’t even let me take him out at the end [after the game was out of hand]. … S---, that’s one of the gutsiest performances you’ll ever see.”

Caleb Williams walks off the field in defeat after losing to Utah.

USC QB Caleb Williams was injured early in Saturday’s game, but continued to play.

All guts from Williams, no glory for USC. And no defense. No tackling. No wrapping up. No taking runners to the ground. No hope of competing for a national championship unit that defense gets fixed.

USC came a long way in a hurry under Riley and his talented band of transfers, rocketing from 4–8 last year to 11–1 and a No. 4 ranking heading into this game. But, in the end, the Trojans resembled a lot of Riley’s Oklahoma teams, run through and passed over defensively, bereft of the physical toughness necessary to win national championships. Utah, meanwhile, averaged a staggering 9.4 yards per play.

Riley will have to think long and hard about whether to retain defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who also was his DC the final three seasons at Oklahoma. This was a shaky unit all season, and it collapsed completely as this game went along against the hard-running Utes. As was exactly the case when Utah upset USC 43–42 in Salt Lake City in October, the Utes scored on five of their last six possessions. They simply kept pounding the Trojans until the Trojans didn’t want to tackle anymore.

“We talked about imposing our will,” Utah quarterback Cameron Rising said. “And that’s what we did.”

Both quarterbacks were brilliant Saturday. Williams threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns, dragging a leg through much of the game. Rising threw for 310 yards and three TDs, and showed his own toughness by only missing one play after taking a vicious (but clean) hit in the third quarter that sent his helmet flying off. But Williams was the one with a message on his fingernails that came back to haunt him in the end. He painted “F--- Utah” on his digits, something Rising said he didn’t notice when he was asked about it afterward.

“I don’t give a s---,” Rising said. “He can put whatever he wants on there, it is what it is. … Hope he liked it.”

In the end, USC was penalized by playing in this game. The conference championship games this year only serve as double jeopardy for the regular-season champions of the SEC (Georgia), Big Ten (Michigan), Big 12 (TCU) and USC here in the Pac-12. They comprised the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings, while their closest pursuers—No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 Alabama—had already played their final games last weekend. The best teams could only play their way down in the rankings and open up an opportunity for someone who didn’t make a title game to come sailing in.

And now, Ohio State seemingly is the beneficiary of USC’s loss. “Coach [Ryan] Day, you’re welcome,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said to the leader of the Buckeyes during the national TV postgame interview. Having been pummeled by Michigan, at home by 22 points in its last game, Ohio State comes slinking into the Playoff via the backdoor.

Still, it’s impossible to feel too sorry for USC after it was absolutely trucked like this by three-loss Utah. It would have been unjust if the Trojans lost by a touchdown while Williams was limping around for three quarters. When you give up 47 in a game you know you need to win—that’s a you problem, not a system problem. All the playoff talk swirling around USC, and the fact the Trojans were favored despite the loss in Salt Lake City, was just the kind of motivational fodder Whittingham has always craved at a program that has hauled itself up by its bootstraps.

Utah running back Ja’Quinden Jackson runs for a touchdown against USC.

For the second straight season, Utah will play in the Rose Bowl as Pac-12 champions. 

“We had a team meeting and took a vote on whether we should even show up for kickoff because they were already going to the playoffs,” Whittingham said. “We had a little chip on our shoulder.”

For the second year in a row, the Utes rule the Pac-12 and will play in the Rose Bowl. They are a popular champion around the league, having taken down a school that is ticketed to jilt the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024.

And for all the progress USC has made under Riley, it is clear how much more there is to go. His three playoff teams at Oklahoma lost semifinal games in which they surrendered 63 points against LSU in 2019, 45 to Alabama in ’18, and 54 (in overtime) to Georgia in ’17. Riley is the preeminent quarterback developer in the sport and an offensive savant, but it takes more than pretty ball plays and points to win at the very end of the season.

Stopping the other guys counts, too.

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