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With Caleb Williams slowed by injuries, USC falls apart against Utah in Pac-12 championship: 5 takeaways

The Trojans jumped out to a 17-3 start, but it was all downhill from there
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LAS VEGAS – USC football's title hopes – of both the conference and national variety – were dashed on Friday night, in particularly painful fashion.

After an incredible start to the game, the Trojans fell 47-24 to Utah in front of a sellout crowd of 61,195 fans at Allegiant Stadium. 

The Utes climbed out of a 14-point first quarter hole before the first half was over, and played outstanding all-around football for the rest of the game to win their second straight Pac-12 football championship.

Here are five takeaways from the game:


To call the Trojans' start blistering doesn't even encapsulate how momentously they began the game.

USC won the toss and elected to receive, and while it technically took USC's offense a couple of minutes to reach full throttle, the heat was on.

The Trojans used their first timeout of the game less than two minutes in as they faced a 3rd-and-2 on their own 44-yard line. It appeared to backfire as Austin Jones was stuffed one yard short of a first down on the next play. But Caleb Williams scrambled for a first down after USC elected to go for it, and the fuse was lit.

On the next play, Williams left a collapsing pocket and threw a 50-yard bomb to Tahj Washington that got USC to the 2-yard line. Williams found Washington for a touchdown on the next play, and USC led 7-0 with 11:28 left in the first quarter.

Utah's offense was in high gear to start the game as well, and the Utes stormed down the field to a 1st-and-goal at the 5. But the Trojans' red zone defense was fantastic, and they backed Utah up two yards by fourth down before Jadon Redding hit a 25-yard field goal.

USC's offense kept sizzling. After Jones opened their next drive up with a five-yard run, Williams broke a small handful of tackles to run 58 yards to Utah's 11-yard line in dazzling fashion. Despite getting backed up by a delay-of-game penalty, Williams connected with Raleek Brown on 4th-and-2 for a 3-yard touchdown. 

At that point, USC led 14-3 with 2:52 left in the quarter. The Trojans' momentum seemed even more promising than the fact that they already led by 11 points.

The Trojans forced a quick punt on Utah's ensuing possession before scoring a field goal on their next drive. That put them up 17-3 on a 20-yard field goal by Denis Lynch. 

Two plays later, Utah QB Cam Rising completed a pass to RB Jaylen Dixon, but Dixon fumbled 19 yards past the line of scrimmage. It was forced by Max Williams and recovered by Bryson Shaw, and it was all USC with 11:56 left in the second quarter.


After Dixon's fumble, Utah came alive and never looked back, while USC's level of play fell off a cliff across the board.

One of the major reasons? It turned out that Williams sustained multiple injuries on the drive that put USC up 14-3. He received treatment on a cut on his throwing hand, and much more significantly, he "popped" his hamstring on the 58-yard run, per USC head coach Lincoln Riley. After the game, Williams compared the feeling in his leg to an "old rubber band".

He looked a bit less crisp on the field goal drive, in which USC scored but failed to pick up a touchdown on a 1st-and-goal at Utah's 3-yard line. And the rest of the game was almost linearly a devolution of his mobility and effectiveness, while Utah's defense simultaneously showed its mettle.

Utah forced a turnover on downs after a 4th-and-8 on its own 37, and its offense woke all the way up. 

While USC struggled to get its own defense off the field for the rest of the game once its offense fell apart, Utah's offensive improvement was driven largely by two things that had nothing to do with Williams. One was more effective run-blocking, and the other was an onset of awful Trojans tackling that plagued them in their regular season loss to Utah.

The Utes went 65 yards across 11 plays to cut the deficit to 17-10 with 3:55 left in the half on an 8-yard run by Ja'Quinden Jackson, forced a quick punt, and tied the game up with two seconds left in the half. The drive was capped by a 4-yard completion from Rising to Dixon through a narrow window. The Utes' improved running game on their previous drive set Rising up to bring their passing game to life on the game-tying drive.

The Trojans had visibly grown a bit rattled as Utah had come alive. On the following kickoff return, Tuasivi Nomura grabbed a squib kick and attempted a lateral that went far above Raleek Brown's head. Brown recovered it not far outside USC's end zone to avoid disaster, although disaster was really just delayed.

USC's front seven reestablished itself temporarily as Utah opened the second half with a punt, but USC went 3-and-out on its next three drives, and totaled a whopping 1 yard of offense in the third quarter. Williams went from visibly slowed down to almost completely hobbled, and Utah's defense dominated the line of scrimmage for nearly the whole second half.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said the Utes noticed Williams' injury early in the third quarter.

"You smell blood in the water and start bringing the heat," he said. 

"Caleb is a tremendous player, maybe the most difficult quarterback to sack I've ever coached against, but... he definitely took some punishment from our guys and we turned up the pressure."

Utah took a 24-17 lead less than 90 seconds into the third quarter on a 57-yard touchdown catch from Money Parks, which displayed both Parks' impressive ability to pick up yards after contact and a handful of mistakes by USC's defense.

A Utah field goal later, which came one play into the fourth quarter, the Utes were starting to run away with the game before USC managed some resistance. Despite being physical unable to leave the pocket, Williams led a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that cut the deficit to 27-24 with 10:52 left in the game. It included three straight completions to Brenden Rice, the last of which counting for 28 yards, and was finished by a 12-yard pass to Mario Williams.

Still, even with USC's deficit down to three points, it felt like Utah still had control the game. And the Utes needed only two plays to affirm that. After a 20-yard run from Micah Bernard, Rising hit Thomas Yassmin for a 60-yard touchdown, with both plays highlighting strong Utah offense and botched USC defense. Utah led 34-24 with 10:08 left in the game.


The Trojans had life again when Williams completed a 48-yard pass to Jordan Addison on a 4th-and-3 from their own 32. But the next two plays effectively signaled the end of the game. After Jones was tackled for a 3-yard loss, R.J. Hubert picked off Williams at Utah's 10 and returned it 29 yards. Injuries notwithstanding, this was Williams' sole big blunder of the game. Even though the Trojans had almost half a quarter left to erase just a 10-point deficit, it was clear that they couldn't.

Jackson uncorked a 53-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-2 to put Utah up 40-24 with 5:29 left in the game. And Utah kept pouring it on. Williams refused to come out of the game, and with almost no mobility left, he was sacked repeatedly down the stretch. Williams fumbled on a 10-yard strip-sack by Mohamoud Diabate, who had just recorded another sack two plays before, and it was recovered by Lander Barton, who'd made an emphatic pass break-up on the previous play.

Micah Bernard added a 23-yard touchdown run with 1:52 left in the game for more icing on the cake.

Rising completed 22 of 34 passes for 310 yards and 3 touchdowns, and was named most valuable player of the game. Jackson ran 13 times for 105 yards and 2 TDs, and Bernard totaled 129 yards of offense and a rushing TD. Diabate and Gabe Reid each recorded 2 sacks and 3 tackles for loss, and each would've been a solid MVP choice in their own right.

Williams finished with 363 yards and 3 touchdowns passing on 28-41 completion with an interception.

"Of guys I coached at that position, that's one of the gutsiest performances I've ever seen," said Riley. "That's as gutsy of a performance as you'll see."

"Defensively, obviously, we played really well early. They seized it there in the second quarter," said Riley. 

"I felt like we were in position defensively a lot today. We dropped two or three interceptions. At the end of the game, we got too focused on trying to strip the ball... [or] making a play."


When it comes to evaluating the performances of injured players, there are two schools of thought. One is to try to keep the injured players' performances in context, and the other is the "if they're playing, they're playing" mentality.

Despite struggling for more than half of the game, Williams went for nearly 400 all-purpose yards, and it would've been a lot more had he not decided to stay under center late in the game while getting taken down for massive losses. Fans of USC, and probably many more fans across the country, will likely be hoping that blowing a lead in the Pac-12 title game isn't a massive blow to Williams' Heisman chances. 

Not winning this game with a dominant individual performance already hurts his Heisman stock from an opportunity cost standpoint. But it would be a shame if voters hold the loss directly against him.


All in all, even if the Trojans lost this game by 50, this year is still a massive success for them.

For Lincoln Riley to turn this program into a legitimate national championship contender in his first year after a 4-8 season, well, speaks for itself. While some key transfers played a major part, USC did it without living in the transfer portal. And USC's recruiting is alive and well again.

It's not the Rose Bowl, but the Trojans still have a high-caliber bowl game to look forward to, and the future is about as bright as it gets. Friday was brutal for USC fans, but this fan base should still be very enthusiastic with the state of the program.