Through the first quarter of the Pac 12 Championship Game at Allegiant Stadium it appeared as if the No. 4 ranked USC Trojans were headed to their first ever College Football Playoff.
Then disaster struck.
The Trojans’ Heisman Trophy quarterback Caleb Williams broke out another highlight-worthy run, but just as he was headed for the end zone he pulled his hamstring and fell to the ground. And in that moment, USC’s dreams of reaching the College Football Playoff went up in flames.
“Have you ever had an old rubber band that snapped? It kind of felt like that,” said Williams of his hamstring injury. “The rest of the game I felt it.”
USC head coach Lincoln Riley said he thought about taking Williams out of the game, but his quarterback wouldn’t let him. Bothered by the leg injury, Williams would remain in the game, but hobbled through the final three quarters. Suddenly one of the best offenses in the country looked pedestrian, distorted, and stagnant.
“A person I admire is Kobe [Bryant]. He always said ‘the game is bigger than what you’re feeling,’” said Williams of why he wanted to stay in the game despite his hamstring injury. “I was encouraging myself that the game was bigger than what I was feeling and I had a group of guys that was looking at me to lead them to victory. That didn’t end up happening.”
No. 11 Utah ran off 21 unanswered points, to rally past USC 47-24, in front of a sold out crowd of 61,195, crushing the Trojans chances of making the College Football Playoff.
The victory gave Utah their second straight Pac 12 title, and clinched a spot in the Rose Bowl.
USC finishes the regular season 11-2, with their only two losses coming against the Utes. A two-loss team has never made the College Football Playoff in its nine-year existence.
Allegiant Stadium, home to the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, is less than a five-hour drive from USC’s campus and less than a six-hour drive from the University of Utah. The schools’ two reds, oddly close to each other on the Pantone scale, made the entirety of the indoor venue look like the red sea.
Only it wasn’t Moses who led his team to victory, it was Utah quarterback Cam Rising who threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns in the victory.
Williams was brilliant in the first quarter. He ran for over 80 yards, and threw for 108 yards, including touchdown passes to Tahj Washington and Raleek Brown that gave USC a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter. But everything changed after the injury.
It was a shocking turn of events after Williams sparkling start to the game. USC appeared to be in total control of the game and had all the momentum. Everyone thought they were were on their way to a conference title and a shot at the national championship as well.
But Utah absorbed the USC onslaught and ran off 14 unanswered points to tie the game at 17-17 at the half. It was the first time the Pac 12 Championship had been tied at halftime since its current iteration 12 years ago.
Utah opened the second half with a long 57-yard touchdown from Rising to Money Parks that gave the Utes their first lead of the game. A lead they would not relinquish for the remainder of the contest.
“That’s the game right there,” said Riley of the Parks’ touchdown. “We dropped a for-sure interception right before that. Then they pop a score the very next play on a third and long on a play we didn’t tackle very well. They made more plays than we did and played better than we did.”
As the game went on, Williams’ mobility in the pocket got worse and worse. He became the equivalent of a sitting duck and Utah was on the hunt, sacking the Heisman frontrunner seven times.
“We sensed he was hurt early in the third quarter,” said Utah head coach Kyle Wittingham. “When you see a quarterback not as mobile as he could be or should be, it’s like smelling blood in the water. We turned up the pressure and he took some punishment for it.”
Despite the punishment, Williams gritted it out. Playing on one-leg, Williams tried to get the Trojans back in the game, finding Mario Williams on a slant for a 12-yard touchdown that cut the Utah lead to 27-24 midway through the fourth quarter.
But Utah responded two plays later when Rising found tight end Thomas Yassmin on a 60-yard catch and score that featured a plethora of missed tackles by the Trojans’ defense, and all but sealed the victory for the Utes.
Williams couldn’t answer the call. He threw a back-breaking interception in the red zone on USC’s next drive, and the rout was on.
“That was one of the gutsiest performances I’ve ever seen,” said Riley of his quarterback. “Most guys wouldn’t have even played and he still gave us a chance. We had to change the game plan and a lot of things on the fly. We had a real shot there at the end.”
Williams and the No. 3 ranked USC offense carried the lackluster defense all season long, but when he needed them the most, the Trojans abhorrent defense couldn’t return the favor. Utah outscored USC 44-7 after the start of the second quarter and finished with 533 yards of total offense.
USC’s resurgence from 4-8 to the precipice of the College Football Playoff is noteworthy and remarkable, but the questions will remain on what could have been had their Heisman Trophy quarterback not gotten hurt. it will also lead to further questions about the value in playing in conference championship games in the modern era.
“Obviously there’s a much bigger picture and outlook here of the progress that’s been made in the last 12 months. So we’re not going to walk around like this is some funeral,” said Riley after the loss. “We’ve made great progress to be in this moment. We expected to win tonight, we didn’t get it done, but that changes nothing about the direction and trajectory of this program.”
No. 5 Ohio State or No. 6 Alabama will likely leapfrog USC into the Final Four, but neither of those two teams will play this weekend. In essence, USC will be punished for competing in their conference championship, while the others received a second bye week. But that’s a conversation for another day, especially with the playoff expanding to 12 teams in 2024.
For now, USC will wait to see where they fall when the final college football rankings are released on Sunday, wondering what could have been had a hamstring held up.
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Source: NBC Los Angeles