USC’s College Football Playoff dreams may have gone up in flames on Friday night in Las Vegas.
The fourth-ranked Trojans almost certainly would have locked up a spot in the four-team playoff with a win over No. 11 Utah in the Pac-12 title game. But the Utes had other ideas.
Utah overcame an early 14-point deficit and stormed back to win 47-24 to capture its second straight Pac-12 championship and clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl.
A two-loss team has never made the College Football Playoff, so the loss by USC may open the door for No. 5 Ohio State to slide into the field of four.
It was a stunning turn of events after a scintillating start from Caleb Williams and the USC offense. Williams, the Heisman Trophy favorite, was on fire early before an early hamstring injury limited his mobility. He added to his Heisman reel in the first quarter with a beautiful on-the-move deep ball to Tahj Washington and a special 59-yard scramble.
Williams was in total command, and USC appeared to be well on its way to both a conference title and a shot at the national championship.
But Utah managed to withstand the USC barrage and get back into the game.
Utah scored twice in the final four minutes of the second quarter, flipping what was a 17-3 USC advantage into a tie ballgame at halftime.
During a thrilling first-quarter run, Williams suffered hamstring injury which left him at less than 50%, according to USC coach Lincoln Riley.
It went unnoticed on the broadcast, but Williams’ pocket mobility got more and more limited as the half progressed. And when the second half got underway, Williams could barely move.
Without any threat of using his legs — either to scramble, extend plays or pick up critical yardage via designed runs — Williams was a sitting duck. Utah’s defense teed off.
USC went three-and-out on its first three second half possessions and Utah took its first lead on a major gaffe from USC’s much-maligned defense.
On a third-and-19 play, Cam Rising hit Money Parks for a 57-yard touchdown on a play that featured multiple missed tackles by the USC defense.
It wouldn’t be the only display of lackluster tackling from USC.
After Utah extended its lead to 10 points, 27-17, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Williams led a gutsy 75-yard touchdown drive to make Utah’s lead just 27-24 with 10:52 to play.
Just when it seemed like the tide was turning back in USC's favor, the defense could not even put up a semblance of resistance.
Only 44 seconds later, Cam Rising hit tight end Thomas Yassmin on a play-action pass. The 251-pound Yassmin easily escaped one arm tackle and then bullied his way through Calen Bullock and into the end zone. That 60-yard touchdown returned Utah's lead to 10 points, 34-24, with 10:08 to play.
On the ensuing drive, Williams made one more incredible play by scrambling and finding Jordan Addison deep on a fourth-down play. But two plays later, he made a critical mistake. Williams stared down a receiver and Utah’s R.J. Hubert read it the whole way to haul in a back-breaking interception in the red zone.
Three plays after the interception, Utah’s Ja’Quinden Jackson put the final nail in the coffin when he reeled off an electric 53-yard touchdown run, extending Utah’s lead to 40-24 with 5:29 to play.
Williams and the USC offense picked up the slack for a porous defense all year long. And on this night, the defense was completely ill-equipped to return the favor.
By the time the dust settled, Utah had accumulated 533 yards of offense, including 223 yards on the ground and a stellar 310-yard, three-touchdown performance from quarterback Cam Rising.
Williams would finish the night with 363 yards and three touchdowns, and a lot of that production came on one leg. It wasn't a performance that should detract from his Heisman candidacy, but an individual award will likely be the furthest thing from Williams' mind if the Trojans end up falling outside the top four on Sunday.