Noise about No. 4 USC, and how Friday night at Allegiant Stadium was merely a stepping stone towards its inclusion in the College Football Playoff. Noise about Caleb Williams, and how the Trojans’ star sophomore quarterback is the prohibitive favorite for the Heisman Trophy.
Kyle Whittingham heard it all.
“We definitely got the message loud and clear that a lot of people were underestimating us, not giving us much of a chance in this game,” Whittingham said. “That’s the wrong group of players to do that to. We’ve historically been a chip-on-our-shoulder-type of program. That’s getting harder and harder to do the more success you have, but that was in our DNA from way back when, as far as feeling a little bit disrespected and people weren’t giving us our due.
“You shook up a little bit of a hornets’ nest when that happened.”
Whittingham’s 11th-ranked Utes, down two scores early to the Trojans, emphatically punched back against perception. Game MVP Cam Rising threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, Ja’Quinden Jackson ran for 105 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense sacked Williams seven times as Utah defended its Pac-12 title with a 47-24 win over USC in front of 61,195, a Pac-12 championship game record for a neutral site.
The win sends the Utes (10-3) back to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, while USC is now out of the CFP mix, but is likely headed to a different New Year’s Six bowl. Utah’s Rose Bowl opponent will become clearer after the remainder of Saturday’s conference championship games. Assuming Michigan beats Purdue in the Big Ten championship game, Penn State appears set to be the conference’s Rose Bowl representative.
“I thought we took it a little personal and saw all that as disrespect,” said Rising, who finished 22-for-34 passing and now has three 300-yard passing games in four career starts vs. USC. “We just wanted to go out and prove a point.”
USC (11-2) and Utah traded touchdown passes early in the fourth quarter, the latter coming on a 60-yard catch and run from Rising to tight end Thomas Yassmin, who broke one tackle on the left sideline, went upfield, then dragged another would-be tackler to the end zone to extend the Utes back to a 10-point lead, 34-24, with 10:08 remaining.
The Trojans moved to the edge of the red zone, but on second-and-13 from the 23, senior safety R.J. Hubert intercepted Williams, returning the ball to the Utah 39.
Three plays later, Jackson’s 53-yard romp, complete with two broken tackles and dragging a defender to the end zone, slammed the door, putting Utah in front, 40-24, with 5:29 left.
“We already knew what we had to do,” Jackson said. “It was just a regular game to us. We knew we had to play physical, we knew we had to stick together as one. It was just a regular game to us.”
The first half on Friday night played out much like the first half of Utah’s 43-42 win over USC on Oct. 15
Fueled by the play of Williams, with some help from an often-porous Utah secondary, the Trojans went up by two touchdowns early in the second quarter, then couldn’t cash in on multiple opportunities for an early knockout.
Down 17-3, Utah got the ball back thanks to a fourth-down pass breakup by freshman safety Sione Vaki after USC, which was doing anything it wanted on offense, went for it on fourth-and-8 from the Utah 37-yard line.
The ensuing Utes drive went 11 plays and 66 yards across 6:33, capped by Jackson’s 8-yard touchdown run up the middle on third-and-4 to cut the deficit to 17-10. Within those 11 plays, Utah converted on fourth-and-2 at the 18 via a 4-yard keeper from Rising.
By this point, after giving up scores on USC’s first three drives, Utah’s defense had settled in. It got another stop, this time forcing a punt before Rising engineered another long drive to close the half.
The Utes overcame two drops along the way to go 81 yards over 14 plays and just 1:38 as Rising’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Dixon with two seconds left in the first half tied the score at 17.
Rising was sharp in the first half, sharper than he has been in weeks while dealing with a left knee injury, throwing for 157 yards and the Dixon touchdown on 14-for-24 passing over the first two quarters.