On week one of the college football season, the task could not be more clear: win them all, and you’re in.
A one-point loss at Utah on Oct. 15 thrust USC’s fate into the hands of the committee, and just as destiny had finally been delivered back to Southern California, the boogeyman from Salt Lake City returned to send the Trojans’ playoff fate right back to a meeting room in Grapevine, Texas.
No. 4 USC fell 47-24 to No. 11 Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game at Allegiant Stadium Friday night. The Utes’ second title in as many years sends them back to the Rose Bowl and all but eliminates the Trojans from playoff contention.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” USC head coach Lincoln Riley said after the game. “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.”
Trailing 17-3 with just over 12 minutes to play in the first half, Utah looked every bit a team that had qualified for the title game in each of the last four full seasons.
The Utes rattled off 14 straight points to close the opening half, knotting the game at 17 apiece on a four-yard toss from junior quarterback Cameron Rising to senior wide receiver Jaylen Dixon with two seconds left in the half.
Rising backed up his mid-October performance with an MVP showing in Vegas, throwing for 310 yards and three scores – two of which went for 55-plus yards in a second half the Utes dominated 30-7.
“[Utah] certainly played better than us today,” Riley said. “Part of when you get to these moments and these big games, is groups that have been there before, and they certainly have. You got to play well to beat them.”
USC sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams entered the night as the Heisman Trophy favorite, and he looked every bit of it early on.
A pair of 50-plus yard pickups – a 50-yard connection to redshirt junior wide receiver Tahj Washington and a 59-yard scramble on the ground – set USC up for its first two scores of the night.
Williams found Washington again for the first – who finished the night with a game-high 93 receiving yards and six catches – and a three-yard toss to freshman running back Raleek Brown put the Trojans up 14-3 with 2:52 to play in the first quarter.
But the Heisman hopeful injured his hamstring on the aforementioned scramble, and neither Williams nor the Trojan offense was the same the rest of the way.
“You ever have an old rubber band?,” Williams said of the injury. “Yeah, it kinda felt like that.”
Williams still managed to end the night with a game-high 363 yards through the air with three touchdowns, including a 12-yard toss to sophomore wide receiver Mario Williams that brought the Trojans within three with 10:52 to play.
“In terms of guys I’ve coached at that position,” Riley said, “it was maybe the gutsiest performance I’ve ever seen. Most guys wouldn’t have even played, and he still gave us a chance.”
But the Trojans never scored again, managing just 10 points in the final 43 minutes of the contest. USC converted just one of its 12 third-down opportunities Friday night, and the defense could only hold for so long.
The Utes broke a pair of big runs in the closing six minutes to ice away the Pac-12 Championship – a 53-yard sprint from redshirt freshman running back Ja’Quinden Jackson and a 23-yarder from sophomore running back Micah Bernard that thrust Utah ahead by 23 points with just under two minutes to play.
“We kind of held serve there defensively for a while,” Riley said. “I felt like we were in position a lot defensively tonight. We dropped two or three very easy interceptions … 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.”
One year removed from a 4-8 disaster, USC entered the final week of the season inside the committee’s top four. It was just one win from its first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff.
And while the Trojans will not be leaving Las Vegas with that victory, year one of the Lincoln Riley era will still finish with at least 11 wins and a New Year’s Six bowl berth – both program firsts since 2017.