No. 11 Utah’s 47-24 win over No. 4 USC served as a spoiler Friday night for the 2022 Pac-12 Championship. The Utes not only put Utah in the Rose Bowl for the second straight season but the Trojans were hollowed out by multiple injuries to USC quarterback Caleb Williams. Knocks off USC Out of the College Football Playoff.
While that won’t be known until Sunday, the two-loss Trojans are unlikely to see a four-team field this season with two losses to the Utes. No. 5 Ohio State, expected to replace USC, lost only to No. 2 Michigan.
USC jumped out to a 17-3 lead in the first half behind Williams’ impressive play. However, the Heisman Trophy favorite slowed under the weight of two injuries, and a hamstring injury opened the door for Utah to fall behind by 14 points before halftime and outscore USC 30-7 in the second half.
Dalton Kincaid was one of Utah’s heroes as the Utes beat the Trojans 43-42 on Oct. 15. Kincaid was slowed by a back injury Friday night, but quarterback Cam Rising had a variety of characters in the game. After throwing five touchdowns against the Trojans in the first meeting, the Rising had another big performance on Saturday, including a 57-yard pass to Money Parks and a 60-yard second-half pass to Thomas Yassmin. Neither player was among the Utes’ top regular-season targets, but both have had huge performances in Kinkaid’s reduced role. Ja’Quinden Jackson ran for 53 yards with 5:29 left to seal the win.
Otherwise, the story was Williams. The sophomore star threw twice and had an impressive 59-yard run in the first quarter alone. He looked basically unstoppable. However, a pinky injury and hamstring injury in his throwing hand limited his mobility and accuracy for the rest of the game. When he slowed down, so did the Trojans.
“Not even 50 percent,” Williams said.
When Williams scrambled for a 59-yard gain in the first quarter and set up a touchdown that put USC up 14-3, he looked like the dynamic player he’s been wowing the country with for most of the season. But for most of the game, he looked like a different player. According to coach Lincoln Riley, he suffered a hamstring injury from that impressive run.
One of the first clear signs that something might have changed for Williams came late in the second quarter when he was sacked on second-and-1 and Williams couldn’t get away from Utah defensive end Gabe Reed. Similar scenes played out many times throughout the rest of the game. Utah finished with seven sacks of Williams, a walk-and-run who clearly limped at times.
“He wasn’t even 50 percent,” Riley said after the game. “I thought I’d take him out, but he wouldn’t…probably the bravest play I’ve ever seen.”
While he should remain the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, a tough night for Williams could add some drama to the voting. Other potential candidates, including Michigan quarterback Blake Corum and Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, suffered late-season injuries that saw them build momentum during their campaigns for the award. If nothing else, the game showed just how important Williams is to USC. Once they were less than 100%, the holes in the Trojans’ pass defense became more apparent, as did their lack of ability to play the football.
A 29-26 Week 1 loss at Florida changed the outside perception around the Utes. Despite being considered a potential CFP team this season, Utah faced an uphill battle after just one game. A disappointing year seemed to be on the way when the Utes lost 4-2 at UCLA on Oct. 8 and Brant Kuyte lost the season-opener to injury on Oct. 8. However, with Kyle Whittingham in his 18th year in the program becoming the norm, Utah persevered.
UCLA’s loss essentially eliminated Utah from CFP contention, but the Utes remained locked in by beating USC for the first time the following week to return to the Pac-12 title game. The program has been to the league championship in four of the last five seasons and has now won back-to-back championships. After its second straight Pac-12 loss to Oregon in November, Utah needed a tough tiebreaker to advance to the Pac-12 title game between Washington and the Ducks. No matter how they finished the match, Utes left with the trophy.
USC’s defense is inadequate
While Williams’ injury has been the focus of Friday’s results, USC’s poor defensive play may have been more important in determining the outcome. Utah converted 11 third downs and had three plays of 50 yards or more. One notable example of USC’s poor tackling came when Utah faced third-and-19 from its own 43-yard line early in the third quarter. The game was tied at 17 and it looked like the Trojans were going to go up three when Rising Parks hit.
Plenty of defenders had a chance to tackle Parks, but he sped up the defense to give Utah its first lead. The Utes finished with 533 yards and were efficient on the ground and through the air. The Trojans had turnovers all year (they finished with a +21 turnover margin), but for the second year under Riley to compete for a national title, they will need to significantly improve their defense.
CFP hopes for Ohio State
So far, Ohio State’s 45-23 loss to Michigan last week seems like a blow to the Buckeyes’ CFP aspirations, knocking them out of the Big Ten Championship Game and into the top four of the CFP rankings. As it turns out, Ohio State may still have a shot at the title. Unless the CFP Selection Committee decides to enroll a two-loss team for the first time in its nine-year history, Ohio State will be the obvious choice to enter the field. At 11-1, the Buckeyes could make the playoffs for the second time as non-division champions. They also went 11-1 when Penn State won the Big Ten East Tournament in 2016, but lost to Clemson 31-0 in the semifinals.