USC’s playoff hopes squashed with loss to Utah in Pac-12 Championship

Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams finished the game with 363 passing yards, 3 touchdowns and an interception. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

After a week of flirting with a spot in the College Football Playoff, the magic for No. 4 USC ran out as the Trojans lost the Pac-12 Championship 47-24 to Utah Friday night.

“Obviously a disappointing night for us. You come as far as this team has come and this program has come in the last 12 months, you get that close to winning a championship and possibly much more and obviously to not get it done is a tough pill to swallow,” said Head Coach Lincoln Riley following the game.

Injuries plagued USC from the get-go. Starting redshirt senior left guard Andrew Vorhees was ruled out before the start of the game. 

I mean he’s one of the best offensive lineman in the country and so obviously not having him was a disappointment,” Riley said. “He’s really battled the last half of the season.”

Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams tweaked his hamstring early in the game after a 59-yard run in the Trojans’ second drive of the game.

“You ever have a old rubber band? Yeah. Kind of felt like that,” Williams said. “The rest of the game, I felt it, but … a person that I admire is Kobe, and he always said ‘The game is bigger than what you’re feeling.’ And so I was in my head and encouraging myself that the game is bigger than what I was feeling.”

Williams was clearly limited after injuring his hamstring. The typically mobile quarterback was sacked a career-high 7 times.

“I mean, he was not even close to 50%. I definitely thought about taking him out,” Riley said. “He wouldn’t have let me and he didn’t let me and he wouldn’t even let me take him out at the end. In terms of guys I’ve coached at that position, it was maybe the gutsiest performance I’ve ever seen.”

Despite a strong first quarter, a defense that has struggled all season to tackle and prevent big plays proved to be, if anything, consistent. USC allowed more points than they had in any game this season. Three of Utah’s touchdowns came on plays over 50 yards, all in the second half.

“We dropped two or three very easy interceptions … And then at the end of the game, we got way too focused on trying to strip the ball or trying to make a play as opposed to just getting them on the ground,” Riley said. “And our tackling was very poor at the end.”

However, in the first quarter it was the Trojans who benefited from explosive plays and evaded tackles. On their opening drive, Williams made perhaps the most impressive throw of a season, which has been chock-full of impressive throws, on a 50-yard bomb to redshirt junior wide receiver Tahj Washington. The Heisman favorite escaped a collapsing pocket and leapt into the air while releasing the ball to a wide open Washington.

“We obviously played really well early, had a lot of momentum. [Utah] seized it there in the second quarter,” Riley said.

After redshirt junior cornerback Max Williams caused a fumble in the second quarter, the Trojan offense turned the ball over on downs after gaining just 2 yards to set up Utah’s first touchdown of the game.

USC received the ball with 3:46 remaining in the first half and could have strung together a long, clock-chewing drive to end the half before the Utes started the second half with possession. However, Williams was sacked for the first time in the game and the Trojans punted.

The Utes took over with 1:40 remaining in the half, and finally got senior tight end Dalton Kincaid involved in the passing game. Junior quarterback Cameron Rising was poised in the pocket and accurate with his throws, eventually finding senior wide receiver Jaylen Dixon for a 4-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 17 at halftime.

Before Utah’s second drive of the third quarter, a video tribute to Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan, two Utah football players who died last year, cued what has become a tradition among Utah fans. The “Moment of Loudness” saw the entire Utah bench empty in honor of their teammates. 

While the defense seemed to negate the recently-gained momentum in the opening plays of the drive, Rising hit Money Parks for a 57-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-19 to give Utah its first lead of the game. As Parks sprinted toward the end zone, the Utah section let out a roar that rivaled their “Moment of Loudness” just minutes before.

After the Utes extended their lead to 10 points a couple drives later, hope seemed to be rapidly running out for the Trojans. 

There were flashes of potential, including the Trojans’ only second-half touchdown drive where Williams picked up a crucial first down using his legs and tossed a touchdown to sophomore wide receiver Mario Williams to cut Utah’s lead to 3 points early in the fourth quarter.

However, Utah answered with a touchdown of their own, taking just 44 seconds to extend their lead back to 10 points. 

A drive that saw redshirt senior Brett Neilon go down with an injury and ended in Williams’ fourth interception of the season proved to be the nail in the coffin for USC. 

Neilon, who will be enshrined in USC football fans’ memories after his iconic push on a key fourth down against Oregon State earlier in the year, waved to the crowd as he was carted off of the field.

Losing Neilon at the end when we had a little bit of momentum certainly hurt, too, because now, you’re shifting a lot of people and some of our depth showed up a little bit there at the end,” Riley said.

While the Trojans’ hopes at a College Football Playoff game are shattered, they will play in a bowl game. USC will find out which bowl game they are in and who they are playing on Sunday.