Playoff hopes ride on Pac-12 title game

Caleb Williams leaps into the end zone.
With another dominant performance against Notre Dame, sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams solidified his case as the Heisman favorite. (Simon Park | Daily Trojan)

Every college football team starts the season with hopes to make it to early December, when only those with a berth to their respective conference championship, or Army and Navy, grace the gridiron. Last year, USC played on the first weekend of December, but it certainly wasn’t for a Pac-12 title. Instead, the Trojans were losing to Cal in a rescheduled game that stamped USC’s worst season since 1991.

Thanks to an influx of talent coming from the hiring of Head Coach Lincoln Riley and an unprecedented wave of transfers, this year’s early December matchup is a different story. 

USC will look to hit the jackpot in Las Vegas Friday when they take on the University of Utah in a rematch of the Trojans’ only loss this season. With a win, USC will earn not only its 40th conference championship, but also a spot in the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history.

“It’s a championship game, you’re going to play a good team regardless. I don’t think we would be any more or less excited if it was anybody else,” Riley said. “This is not a revenge game … This is a new game, a new challenge, a new setting.”

Utah was the first real heat check for a USC team that had faced just three teams with records now above .500. While the offense exploded for 42 points and over 424 yards, USC’s defense was tested by a strong Utah rushing attack and senior tight end Dalton Kincaid, who burned the Trojan secondary for 234 yards and a touchdown. Junior quarterback Cameron Rising ran for a two-point conversion to take the Utes’ first lead of the game en route to a 43-42 loss for the Trojans.

“Any time someone has a career game against you, there’s a little bit of embarrassment about it,” said Grinch on Kincaid’s monster game against the Trojans. “If [Rising] makes big time throws and [Kincaid] makes big time catches and we don’t tackle him, we know exactly what’s going to happen: the same damn thing … It’s all hands on deck with an opponent like this and one that we have a lot of respect for.”

Containing Kincaid is certainly a focus for Grinch and his linebacker unit that seems to always be recovering from injuries. However, with sophomore linebacker Eric Gentry back on the field, USC’s defense is vastly improved. 

“He’s been one of those guys that collectively over the course of the year has made some plays and made an impact for us,” Grinch said. “His best football is still in front of him and we’re certainly excited about [Gentry].”  

On the offensive end, sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams has continued to impress college football pundits, and is now the heavy favorite to win the Heisman trophy. With 44 total touchdowns and just 3 interceptions on the season, Williams has been the key to each USC victory. 

“One of the things that we did was block out the noise and that’s what I’ve been doing,” said Williams on the Heisman hype that has built up as his season has progressed. “We have bigger goals in mind that I’m a part of and that I want to be a part of towards the end of the season.”

The Trojan offense averages over 42 points per game and has faced its fair share of injuries, with junior receiver Jordan Addison and sophomore receiver Mario Williams each missing multiple games and starting running back Travis Dye ending his redshirt senior season early with an ankle injury.

Senior running back Austin Jones has seamlessly stepped up in Dye’s absence, rushing for 348 yards and 2 touchdowns following Dye’s injury against Colorado.

“[Jones] didn’t let it rattle him. He kept working, and trusted there would be an opportunity if he kept his nose to the grindstone and he’s done that,” Riley said. “Like I’ve said many times, nobody around here is surprised about him being ready to step up and play at an elite level like he has since [Dye] went down.”

The Trojans will need all hands on deck for a talented Utah team that handed USC its only loss of the season. USC will take on the Utes Friday at 5 p.m. in Las Vegas.