USC 'panicked a little bit' as Utah pulled away: Takeaways from the Pac-12 title game

USC quarterback Caleb Williams and Utah safety Cole Bishop react after Williams fumbled the ball
USC quarterback Caleb Williams and Utah safety Cole Bishop react after Williams fumbled the ball during the Pac-12 championship game Friday in Las Vegas. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Lincoln Riley’s swift rebuild at USC was one of the most compelling stories in college football this season. The Trojans went from four-win fallen dynasty to 11-win championship contender in 12 months.

But Friday's Pac-12 championship game proved that the instant gratification from a talented team of all-star transfers isn't enough.

The No. 12 Utes (10-3) dashed No. 4 USC’s championship and College Football Playoff semifinal hopes with a 47-24 drubbing at Allegiant Stadium. Utah handed the Trojans (11-2) both of their losses this season and won its second consecutive Pac-12 championship against a team that many were ready to crown as a playoff team during Riley's first season.

While stadium employees swept Utah's red and white confetti from the field, the Ute celebration continued on social media.

"Money can't buy that," Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid wrote on Twitter with an emoji of a ring.

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Kyle Whittingham, who began his Utah tenure in 2005 when Riley was still a student assistant under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, has coached the Utes to four Pac-12 championship appearances in the last five years.

“[They’ve] had a system in place, guys recruited for a long time, you see the continuity, how that's built. You kind of feel that with the way their guys play,” Riley said. “You got to give 'em credit. Part of when you get to kind of these moments in these big games is groups that have been there before. They certainly have. A lot of our team has not.”

Here are three takeaways from the game:

Defense wears down

Utah receiver Money Parks holds up an index finger as he scores a touchdown in front of USC defensive back Calen Bullock.
Utah receiver Money Parks celebrates as he scores a touchdown in front of USC defensive back Calen Bullock during the third quarter of the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium on Friday in Las Vegas. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

On defense, the Trojans proved to be exactly what skeptics thought they were. USC gave up 533 yards to Utah, including scoring plays of 60, 53 and 23 yards in the fourth quarter.

USC appeared to have turned a corner on defense with gritty performances against rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. The Trojans held the Pac-12’s leading rusher Zach Charbonnet to fewer than 100 yards and limited the Irish to just 90 yards on the ground. It looked like a sign of a team that finally found its mean streak up front.

Then Utah exposed the Trojans for 223 rushing yards, including 105 from Ja’Quinden Jackson, who scored two touchdowns. Jackson’s 53-yard rushing touchdown with 5:29 remaining essentially served as the knockout punch against the Trojans as he put Utah up by 16. Jackson rushed straight up the middle and had no problem running through Calen Bullock’s half-hearted tackle inside the 10-yard line. The missed tackles contributed to the long scoring plays late in the game because the Trojans “panicked a little bit,” Riley said.

“[We] got way too focused on trying to strip the ball or trying to make big plays as opposed to just getting them on the ground,” Riley said.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising, a Newbury Park alumnus who did not receive significant recruiting interest from the hometown Trojans, had his two best games of the season against USC. After torching the Trojans for 415 yards in the regular season, he finished with 310 yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-34 passing Friday.

Rushing game disappears

USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs with the ball while pulling away from the Utah defense.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs with the ball while pulling away from the Utah defense during the first quarter of the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium on Friday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Austin Jones was rolling. Utah stopped him cold.

The running back, who had a career-high 154 rushing yards against Notre Dame, was held to just 35 yards on 15 carries on Friday. His ability to balance the offense, taking pressure off Williams and the passing game, was critical against the Irish. The run game was a non-factor against Utah, however, putting undue stress on an already injured Williams.

Williams, who suffered a hamstring injury while scrambling for 59 yards during USC’s second drive of the game, was unable to pull off his normal Heisman-worthy feats and was sacked seven times.

“When your quarterback's playing immobile, it's certainly a factor there as well,” Riley said of the lack of running game. “People got to play us a little bit differently with him when he can move around. That changed some of the run game. I certainly deserve fault at that. There's times that I could have and should have stayed with it more as far as calling the game.”

Without the 69 yards lost on seven sacks, Williams would have led the Trojans with 90 rushing yards on five carries.

Injuries mount

Utah defensive tackle Simote Pepa sacks USC quarterback Caleb Williams during the third quarter.
Utah defensive tackle Simote Pepa sacks USC quarterback Caleb Williams during the third quarter of the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium on Friday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Williams’ injury wasn’t the only one holding the Trojans back Friday. USC began the game without starting left guard Andrew Vorhees, who has been battling a nondisclosed injury for the latter half of the season. Riley said the redshirt senior “really hasn’t been anywhere close to 100%.”

The injury shuffled the starting offensive line by flipping right guard Justin Dedich to the left side for Vorhees, moving right tackle Jonah Monheim to right guard and subbing redshirt freshman Mason Murphy on the right edge.

The alignment took another hit in the fourth quarter when center Brett Neilon suffered a leg injury on a fourth-and-three scramble drill that resulted in an improbable 48-yard pass from Williams to Jordan Addison. Trailing by just 10 midway through the fourth quarter, the play could have given the Trojans a shot of momentum to mount a comeback. But Neilon was carted off, forcing Dedich to move to center and Gino Quinones to come off the bench. Williams threw an interception two plays later.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.