With USC star quarterback Caleb Williams hurt, Utah’s defense smelled ‘blood in the water’

The Utes had seven sacks in the Pac-12 championship game.

(Steve Marcus | AP) Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams (13) is tackled by Utah safeties R.J. Hubert (11) and Cole Bishop (8) during the first half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Las Vegas.

Caleb Williams may soon have the ring of a Heisman Trophy winner on his finger.

On Friday, USC’s quarterback’s night started to unravel with a cut on his pinky.

Williams opened the Pac-12 championship game looking every bit of the superstar who had led the No. 4 Trojans to the doorstep of the College Football Playoff.

He darted down the sideline, then picked up a tone-setting conversion on fourth down. He was perfect on that opening drive, including a touchdown pass.

He followed that up by embarrassing Utah’s tacklers for a 59-yard run and another touchdown his next time on the field.

Then, with the Trojans looking ready to run away with the title, Williams made a trip to the injury tent.

The cut on his finger would be the first setback. By the time the confetti was falling at Allegiant Stadium, Utah 47-24 winners, the Pac-12 champions crowned and Rose Bowl-bound, Williams limped his way through the postgame celebrations. After the game, USC coach Lincoln Riley would say Williams felt a pop in his hamstring on that 59-yard run.

Maybe only injury could make Williams one-dimensional. The Utes will only care about being two-time Pac-12 champs.

“Yeah, we sensed — I can’t remember the exact point, but it was sometime early in the third quarter I believe,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “When you see a quarterback become not as mobile as he could be or should be, you smell blood in the water and you start bringing the heat. I mean, that’s the strategy you want to use.

“Caleb is a tremendous player. Maybe the most difficult quarterback to sack that we ever played against. We banged him up, slowed him down. I don’t know how many sacks we ended up with, did we have half a dozen? Somewhere in that neighborhood?”

Seven, to be exact.

That’s a big number, especially given what Williams had done all season long. Utah had delivered Williams and the Trojans’ their lone loss of the season, but no one had truly been able to slow down USC’s star man.

“He’s been great every game, show me a game where he’s not great,” Whittingham said earlier in the week. “I think he just keeps getting better and better.”

By the third quarter, though, Williams didn’t look himself.

“You ever have an old rubber band? That’s kind of what it felt like,” Williams said.

Riley said Williams refused to come out even as the quarterback limped slowly back to the sideline early the in the third quarter, and backup Miller Moss began to warm up.

“That’s one of the gutsiest performances you’ll ever see,” Riley said.

And Utah, knowing a thing or two about how dangerous a wounded quarterback can be, knew the threat Williams still posed.

In Salt Lake City earlier this year, Utah’s Cam Rising suffered a knee injury while playing the Trojans that would go on to hamper him through the latter weeks of the season. That night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, though, Rising persevered and led the Utes to victory.

In Las Vegas, the Utes made sure Williams didn’t do the same for his team.

“He definitely took some punishment from our guys. We turned up the pressure,” Whittingham said.

The Utes recorded seven sacks.

They limited the Trojans to a single yard of offense in the third quarter.

Williams still had moments. He ran gingerly for a first down early in the fourth quarter. He sidestepped a charging rusher and threw a dart to Brenden Rice for 28 yards, and then found Mario Williams for a touchdown to make it a 27-24 game.

He was just fast enough to escape the pressure and find Jordan Addison on a busted play.

But Utah and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley were more relentless.

“Fourth-quarter pass rush put it away,” Whittingham said.

R.J. Hubert picked off Williams, the quarterback’s fourth interception of the season. The game’s outcome seemed sure when Mohamoud Diabate sacked Williams and Lander Barton walked off the field with the football the QB had fumbled.

There would be two more sacks after that, the last one sending Williams limping off the field for the final time.