If you close your eyes and think back to the University of Utah’s Rose Bowl run last season, there are at least a few moments that come to mind immediately.
Cam Rising almost pulling out the San Diego State game in triple overtime, Britain Covey’s 78-yard punt return touchdown vs. Oregon, Devin Lloyd’s pick-six at the Pac-12 championship game.
Whether or not this Utah season ends in another trip to the Rose Bowl remains to be seen, but if it does, Saturday night vs. USC is going to be one of those things you recall instantly. More specifically, the final drive. Even more specifically, fourth-and-goal at the 1 and the two-point conversion that followed.
These are the forever things, the stuff that gets retold for the umpteenth time at family gatherings, celebrated at holidays. The stuff that moves with you as you age, the stuff that gets people excited for another season to start. This is the stuff that builds legacies, or even enhances an already-established legacy, which brings us back to Rising.
Rising’s legacy was etched in cement last December at the Pac-12 championship game as he steered those Utes to Pasadena. His legacy cannot be tarnished, only enhanced, which is what Saturday was.
The night unquestionably belonged to Rising, the engine that is keeping this Utah team on the path back to Las Vegas and the Pac-12 championship game. When Rising has it cranked up, anything feels possible, and on Saturday, he had it cranked up.
The final drive
Fourth-and-goal from the 1 and the two-point conversion for the win will get most of the attention, but given what was on the line, and given how the rest of the night went, that final drive might have been Utah’s best of the season.
For starters, Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig had a plan before that drive even began. If they scored at a time when the clock was dying, they were going for two, which was the right move, because USC was a safe bet to win that game in OT. Furthermore, if Utah went for two, they had already determined the play was going to Rising.
Third-and-10 from the Utah 36: Rising to Kincaid for 12
Third-and-1 on the USC 43: Rising to Kincaid for 19, featuring lots of YAC.
Third-and-5 from the USC 19: Rising to Kincaid for 11, featuring more YAC.
Third-and-goal at the 1: Micah Bernard up the middle, but he’s met and crushed by Tuasivi Numora, timeout USC.
Fourth-and-goal at the 1: Every soul in the building knows where the play is going, it didn’t matter. Rising on the keeper, good blocking up front, as was the case most of the night, Utah down a point.
With 48 seconds left, the plan to go for two pans out. Again, everyone knows where it’s going, it didn’t matter. Rising out of the shotgun, appeared to briefly consider throwing, breaks three tackles, gets in, Utah leads.
That was a championship drive, 15 plays, 75 yards, 5:27. USC’s last-gasp effort got to its own 40, but no further. Frankly, Utah did anything it wanted in the second half. It had four drives, three ended in touchdowns. On the fourth, Micah Bernard fumbled inside the 5, but even that one was going right in.
Utah’s run game is not in a good place right now (more on that below), but the offense as a whole is operating at a high level with Rising doing anything and everything he can to make up for any deficits. His 475 yards of total offense, including 415 passing, are both career-bests.
The officiating was an atrocity
Everyone loves to bag on the officiating in the Pac-12, and it’s warranted, but Saturday night was profoundly bad. For what it’s worth, USC-Utah was obviously a showcase game for the conference, with two brands, not to mention two Pac-12 title contenders, in a game being played on FOX, with commissioner George Kliavkoff present.
The worst instance came late in the first half when, after an interminable replay review to check a targeting call, Utah had to take its second timeout in the middle of a drive to avoid a 10-second runoff. Then, the officials reversed that, gave back the timeout and did not institute the 10-second runoff. Whittingham was incredulous.
On what appeared to be the game-sealing interception by JT Broughton on USC’s final drive, Clark Phillips was called for pass interference. The Trojans kept the ball, then had five seconds added back onto the clock. If someone can explain that to me, no joking, I would appreciate it.
“I’ve still got to figure out what’s going on with that clock,” Whittingham said. “I don’t know, someone’s got to explain all that to me. It was bizarre how that went down.”
Utah fans complained about the refs, USC fans complained about the refs. It was bad both ways, some of it was egregious, but none of it decided the game. I don’t think that should be in dispute, but the overarching point stands. The officiating was bad, bad enough where someone in charge should feel compelled to act on it.
Imagine if this game, involving a College Football Playoff contender and the reigning conference champion, was decided on one of those calls?
The defense got beat up again
Utah gave up 502 total yards to UCLA, including 299 through the air, but entered the night with the Pac-12′s No. 1 total defense (315.8 yards per game) and No. 1 pass defense (179.3 yards per game). On Saturday, the Utes yielded 556 yards of total offense, and 381 yards and five touchdowns to Caleb Williams.
I’m absorbing what I just watched, plus those statistics, but I’m sticking with thinking that Utah’s defense is not good enough, and has not been good enough for most of this season against quality opponents. The offense is getting what it wants the majority of the time, and when you score 43 points (Utah entered the night averaging 40 points per game), that can mask defensive deficiencies. However, asking the offense to do that every week feels untenable if you paint yourself a Power Five contender.
In the first quarter alone, USC completed passes of 18, 18, 17, and 65, and had runs of 55, 10, and 17. The fact the Trojans led just 14-7 after one felt like a minor miracle.
In fairness, some of that was simply Williams being special, which he is. He spun out of trouble and made throws once or twice, he was aware enough to know when to take off with the ball, and it helped that Utah didn’t have much of a pass rush, nor has it had one for much of the season.
On the very first drive of the night, Williams had all night to throw on first down (incomplete) and even longer on third down (55-yard scramble). Utah was looking to take away what Williams can do through the air, but if you’re doing that, you have to get home on a four-man rush at least some of the time. Utah did not do that enough.
Other things on my mind
• There was postgame reporting from ESPN 700 that Tavion Thomas took off his pads and left the game early. On its own, that lacks a ton of context, but there is video evidence from the seats that the game ended with Thomas not wearing his pads, and heading back to the locker room on his own as the on-field celebration unfolded. I asked Kyle Whittingham postgame about the ESPN 700 reporting and he had no idea what I was talking about. An athletic department official texted me in the middle of Whittingham’s presser that Thomas was present in the postgame locker room. Whittingham was then asked about it on the ESPN 700 postgame show, and again said he had no idea, which, in fairness, is certainly plausible as the head coach is concentrating on a multitude of different things during a game. Where this situation stands at the moment is murky. Thomas has been treading water for weeks and after seeing an expanded role at UCLA, his usage took a dip again vs. USC. Whittingham is expected to speak Monday morning despite the bye week.
• Kickoffs continue to be an issue, or more specifically, not kicking the ball out of the end zone. Ben Norton handled kickoffs against USC, not Jordan Noyes. It didn’t matter, same issue.
• Whittingham said the offensive line, which saw Jaren Kump take over at right guard for Michael Mokofisi, doesn’t get enough credit, and he’s right. Rising was not sacked on Saturday and generally had a clean night despite being in on 54 of the 76 plays the Utes ran.
• Solomon Enis returned against USC. Thomas Yassmin did not.
• Rising to Money Parks up the middle for 45 yards felt like the first time Utah connected on a deep ball this season. I’m not even sure Ludwig had called such a play to that point.
• This is now shaping up as a four-team race to get to Las Vegas between Utah, USC, Oregon, and UCLA. The Ducks and Bruins play Saturday in Eugene, the winner standing as the Pac-12′s lone unbeaten. Utah-Oregon and UCLA-USC are both Nov. 19, USC and Oregon do not play each other. Things will get wonky because it’s the Pac-12, but all things being equal, Utah fans should probably be rooting for UCLA to beat Oregon. You’re then looking at Utah-Oregon as a potential win-and-in scenario.
• Whittingham called this a good time for a bye. Utah has played seven games, plus four weeks of training camp, so you’re essentially 11 weeks in. The Utes do not get the full two weeks because they play at Washington State on Oct. 27, a Thursday, but if you get past that, you have a little extra time to prepare for Arizona on Nov. 5.
• Whittingham noted a couple of weeks ago they’re comfortable calling between 8-12 designed runs per game for Rising. Those are becoming more and more necessary as Tavion Thomas continues to be less of a factor. Micah Bernard, who had an underrated game, rushed 11 times, Thomas eight, and that was about it for running backs. I don’t think you want to lean on your quarterback to be your leading rusher multiple weeks in a row. That’s a problem.
• With USC headed to the Big Ten in 2024, Saturday marked the last time the Trojans will visit Rice-Eccles for what is likely to be a very long time. That strikes me as a shame, because USC-Utah always seems to have some juice behind it.
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