USC points vs. Utah, takeaway: Utes dominate Trojans for Pac-12 title defense, Rose Bowl Berth claimed

No. 11 Utah played spoiler Friday night in a dominant 47-24 win over No. 4 USC in the 2022 Pac-12 Championship Game. The evisceration of the Trojans, which saw the Utes take advantage of multiple injuries to quarterback Caleb Williams, not only sent Utah to the Rose Bowl for the second consecutive season but also potentially USC knocks of the college football game.

While that certainly won’t be decided until Sunday, the double-loss Trojans are unlikely to see a four-team field with two losses to the Utes this season. USC is expected to replace No. 5 Ohio State, which only suffered a loss from No. 2 Michigan State.

USC jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead behind some great plays from Williams. However, the Heisman Trophy favorite slowed under the weight of two injuries, including a hamstring injury that opened the door for Utah to rally from a 14-point deficit before halftime and lead USC 30-7 in the second half.

When the Utes eliminated the Trojans 43-42 on October 15, Dalton Kincaid was one of the Utah champions. With Kincaid slowed down Friday night with a lower back injury, a variety of personalities have emerged as threats in quarterback Cam Rising’s passing game. After scoring five touchdowns against the Trojans in the first meeting, Rising had another huge performance on Saturday, which included touchdown passes of 57 yards to Money Gardens and 60 yards to Thomas Jasmine in the second half. Neither player was among the Utes’ top scorers in the regular season, but both made huge plays amid Kincaid’s role decline. With 5:29 remaining, Ja’Quinden Jackson sealed the score with a 53-yard run.

Otherwise, it was Williams’ story. The sophomore star threw two touchdowns and had an amazing 59 yards in the first quarter alone. He basically seemed unstoppable. However, a pinky injury to his hand and a hamstring injury limited his mobility and accuracy for the remainder of the match. And as it slowed down, so did the Trojans.

Williams, not even 50 percent.

When Williams rushed for a 59-yard gain in the first quarter to set up a touchdown that put USC ahead 14-3, he looked like the dynamic playmaker who has dazzled the country for most of the season. But for most of the rest of the game, he seemed like a different player. As it turns out, that dazzling run resulted in a hamstring injury, according to trainer Lincoln Riley.

One of the first telltale signs that something had changed for Williams came late in the second quarter when he was sacked on the usually elusive second-and-one, and Williams couldn’t escape the grip of Utah defensive tackle Gabe Reed. A similar scene is played out many times during the remainder of the game. Utah finished with seven sacks over Williams, who walked and ran with a noticeable limp at times.

“It wasn’t even 50 percent,” Riley said after the game. “I thought about getting him out but he wouldn’t let me… It was probably the most daring performance I’ve ever seen.”

Although he should remain the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, a tough night for Williams could add some drama to the vote. Other potential favorites like Michigan running back Blake Corum and Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker also dealt with late-season injuries that took momentum from their campaigns for the award. If nothing else, the game showed just how important Williams is to USC. Once it was below 100%, the holes in the Trojans’ pass protection became more apparent, as well as their inability to run football.

Utah restores

A 29-26 Week 1 loss at Florida changed the outside view about the Utes. Despite entering the season as a CFP prospect, Utah faced an uphill climb after just one game. When superstar Brant Koity was lost early in the season to injury, coupled with the Utes falling 4-2 with a loss at UCLA on Oct. 8, it looked like a disappointing year was on the horizon. However, Utah has become the base for the program’s under-18 side Kyle Whittingham.

While the UCLA defeat essentially eliminated Utah from CFP contention, the Utes beat USC for the first time the following week and remained locked out upon returning to Pac-12 play. The program has been in the league championship game four of the past five seasons and now has back-to-back titles. After suffering a Pac-12 loss to Oregon in November, it actually took a complicated playoff run for Utah to get to the Pac-12 Championship Game over Washington and the Ducks. No matter how the game ended up, the Utes left with the trophy.

USC defense minor

While Williams’ injuries would take a lot of attention from Friday’s result, the lackluster play of the USC defense was more important in determining the outcome. Utah converted 5 of 11 third downs and caught three plays of 50 yards or more. One notable example of USC’s mishandling came with Utah facing 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 about to force a three-out when Rising Parks hit for the go-ahead run.

Several defenders had a chance to tackle Parks, but he hurried through the defense and gave Utah the lead. The Utes finished with 533 yards and were effective on the ground and through the air. The Trojans have celebrated their shootout all year (they finished +21 in turnover margin) but they’ll become a national title contender in year two under Riley, and they’ll need a major defensive improvement.

CFP hopefully in Ohio

For now, Ohio State’s 45-23 loss to Michigan last week looks like a fatal blow to the Buckeyes’ CFP aspirations as it knocks them out of the Big Ten Championship game and out of the top four in the CFP rankings. As it turns out, Ohio State may still have a chance to compete for a national championship. Unless the CFP selection committee decides to accept a two-loss team for the first time in its nine-year history, Ohio State will be an obvious choice for inclusion on the field. At 11-1, the Buckeyes could reach the playoffs for the second time as non-division champions. They also achieved an 11-1 record in 2016 when Penn State won the Big Ten East, though they lost 31-0 to Clemson in the semifinals.

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