Utah repeats as Pac-12 champs, knocks USC out of playoff

LAS VEGAS, NV — 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 make their first-ever College Football Playoff appearance in Lincoln Riley’s first season as head coach.

But one blemish turned into two on Friday night in Vegas, as No. 11 Utah played spoiler and proved it has USC’s number this season.

The Utes scored 24 unanswered points and went on to beat No. 4 USC 47-24 to win their second-straight Pac-12 title and likely keep the Trojans out of the fourth playoff spot.

In what felt like a near-repeat of the matchup between the two 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 Caleb Williams, who finished the game with 296 passing yards, 65 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, Trojans coach Lincoln 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’s 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 and he always said the game is bigger than what you’re feeling.”

Utah, meanwhile, settled in during the second quarter and quarterback Cam Rising put together two touchdown drives at the end of the half to tie the game at 17.

In the second half, it became clear Williams was hurt. The 20-year-old quarterback favored his left side and was visibly limping. Though Williams stayed in the game, he was no longer the player that spearheaded one of the most explosive offenses in the nation.

During the second half, Williams showed some hesitation, too. And when the USC defense was on the field, Williams rode the stationary bike on the sidelines. Backup quarterback Miller Moss grabbed his helmet and warmed up, but Williams remained under center.

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 have had all season.

The Utes took advantage. They not only pressured Williams plenty, but on offense they went back to their most reliable option against the USC defense: tight ends. Dalton Kincaid and Thomas Yassmin combined for 121 yards, including a 60-yard Rising to Yassmin touchdown pass that pushed the lead back to 10 after USC cut it to three in the fourth quarter.

Rising finished with 310 yards in the air to six different receivers and three touchdowns. The senior out of California was selected the game’s most valuable player postgame. Thanks to Rising, the Utes once again did what no other team could all season: outscore and outgain the Trojans. Utah finished with 533 total yards of offense to USC’s 411.

By the time running back Ja’Quinden Jackson broke off a 53-yard touchdown run to put the Utes up 16, the result was all but set in stone. The Utes were going back to the Rose Bowl and USC was left with not just two losses to the same team, but a hurt quarterback and no title to show for their turnaround season too.

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