Analysis: Utah football’s high and lows brought it another Pac-12 championship and ultimately, another Rose Bowl

The big turning point, Utah’s defense dominates and Cam Rising looks like himself.

Las Vegas • As you consider how gratifying it must have been for the University of Utah to once again win the Pac-12 championship game, please take a moment to consider what has transpired this fall.

The quarterback has been playing at less than full strength for the last six weeks. The No. 1 running back is no longer on the team, and that position has been in flux all fall. One tight end is out for the season, another is dinged up. The No. 1 wide receiver is injured to the point where he was relegated to fair-catching punts in the biggest game of the season. One defensive end is out for the season, another is dealing with a long-term injury. Of course, none of this includes the loss at Oregon, followed by all the dominoes that needed to fall last weekend just for the Utes to be playing for the right to defend their Pac-12 title.

Every season is unique, different, with its own set of highs and lows, its own quirks, its own defining moments, both good and bad.

About defining moments, that aforementioned loss in Eugene was one, but Friday night’s second-half demolition of USC was another. The latter? Yeah, the latter was the sweetest moment because, after all the injuries, the ill-timed loss at Florida, the potential season-crusher against the Ducks, these Utes got the one that mattered most on Friday night. This was the one that stamped them as the Pac-12′s no-doubt, preeminent power.

When it was all over, these Utes had to start making a fresh set of holiday plans for New Year’s in Pasadena.

The turning point

The early tenor of this game included the fact that Utah’s defense was a mess, just like the first meeting on Oct. 15.

A 50-yard pass from Caleb Williams to Tahj Williams on the opening drive. A Caleb Williams 59-yard rush on the next drive, which ended with the sophomore Heisman Trophy candidate hitting running back Raleek Brown for a 3-yard score on fourth-and-2 after two defenders rushed Williams instead of one staying with Brown.

At that point, USC is up, 14-3, and doing anything it wants. Utah goes three-and-out, the Trojans take over at their own 26-yard line and eventually have first-and-goal at the 3 early in the second quarter. Running back Austin Jones gets stuffed on first down, then two incomplete passes for Williams, the second of which featured a great pass breakup by Clark Phillips. Instead of going on fourth-and-goal at the 3, which nobody would have questioned, they take a Denis Lynch field goal to go up, 17-3.

Utah wide receiver Money Parks (10) celebrates Utah's 47-24 victory over Southern California in the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

That decision felt ominous, because if Utah wakes up on offense, Lincoln Riley is going to want those points. There was no good reason in that spot to merely take the points.

Ensuing drive, Jaylen Dixon fumbles after a 19-yard pass from Cam Rising, setting the Trojans up at the Utah 39. USC gets nothing, eventually turning the ball over on downs after Riley correctly opted to go on fourth-and-8 from the Utah 37, aka no man’s land.

Just like the first meeting, when USC was up two scores on three separate occasions in the first half, there wasn’t enough aggression, not enough execution in trying to step on Utah’s throat. If you go on fourth-and-goal at the 3 and hit it, you’re up 21-3 or you’re pinning Utah’s offense deep at a time when it wasn’t getting anything done.

Riley should want that sequence back.

Morgan Scalley’s defense mauled Caleb Williams

Again, this game had a lot of the same overarching tones of the first game, so here’s another.

Williams was terrific early in engineering the USC offense, taking advantage of a handful of busted downfield coverages, but eventually, Morgan Scalley made some adjustments and the defense started getting the better of things. The difference here is, that happened in the second half last time. This time, it happened in the second quarter. This time, it coincided with Williams beginning to limp around with what initially appeared to be a knee injury.

(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.

Postgame, Riley revealed that Williams “popped his hamstring” on the 59-yard run during the second drive. To be clear, Williams is special. He should win the Heisman in spite of Friday, and he’s going to be playing on Sundays at some point. That said, if you take away his ability to move out of the pocket and make something happen with his legs, USC, which was down one offensive lineman and lost another during the game, was going to be in trouble.

Kyle Whittingham said postgame they started to get a real sense that Williams was not quite himself, not showing his normal mobility until early in the third quarter. What happened next was obvious.

With Williams mostly staying in the pocket, Scalley pressured him. He blitzed, he let his linebackers essentially try and get home when they felt it was possible. Utah sacking Williams seven times, including two each from Mohamoud Diabate and Gabe Reid, is an outrageous number. That’s more than any USC game this season, and the last five Trojans games combined.

Williams finished 28-for-41 for 363 yards and three touchdowns, plus another 90 yards rushing, but that’s all a little deceiving. The second half of this game undoubtedly belonged to Scalley and his defense. Holding that USC offense, spearheaded by that quarterback, to 419 yards of total offense is to be commended.

Rising looked like Rising

The things said about Rising in the last six weeks, including by me, have been consistent, if not constant.

He is not operating at 100% with the left injury. He hasn’t looked like himself. Andy Ludwig is very clearly calling fewer designed QB keepers, a potential indication of Rising’s health. He’s relying too much on Dalton Kincaid, and on, and on this has gone.

Rising is not fully healthy or else he wouldn’t be wearing a bulky protective brace on the knee, but for the first time since the first USC game, he looked like himself, and when he looks like himself, anything seems possible.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) walks across the field after Utah's 47-24 victory over Southern California in the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

To boot, Kincaid is not fully healthy, nor is Devaughn Vele, and Rising still made it happen. He targeted nine different receivers, connecting with six of them. Within that were long catch-and-run scores from wide receiver Money Parks and tight end Thomas Yassmin, both of whom represent the depth Whittingham has built.

On Utah’s first touchdown drive in the second quarter, Rising carried on three straight designed runs, which hadn’t happened in a while. On the second touchdown drive that tied the game right before the half, Rising overcame a drop by Micah Bernard that was going upfield for big yards, and a drop from Kincaid from inside the 5 that was going for a touchdown to cap off a 14–play drive with a short TD pass to Jaylen Dixon.

Rising finished 22-for-34 for 310 yards and three touchdowns, marking the third 300-yard game in four career starts vs. USC. Keep in mind, this is a former four-star kid who grew up in Ventura, 80 miles from Los Angeles, and USC never seriously recruited him.

That is not lost on Rising.

Other things on my mind

The hit Rising took late in the third quarter where his helmet popped off is as violent as anything I’ve seen live at any level of the sport. The 3-second clip does it no justice because Rising simply popped back up and started jogging off. He took a knee, got checked out by trainers, and was cleared to return to action a short time later. You or I would be in the hospital. Rising just kept playing football.

• Wildly underrated play of the evening: Down 17-3 and driving, Bernard runs for 14 to the USC 26, fumbles it, but left guard Keaton Bills is there to fall on it. If Utah loses that ball and the Trojans cash in, it’s a problem. Instead, Ja’Quinden Jackson’s 8-yard run to cap the drive made it 17-10.

• Jackson’s last two games as he has ascended to de facto RB1: 23-222-5. This guy’s season started out losing a QB2 battle to Bryson Barnes. He switched positions when asked in late September, and is now leading Utah in rushing in the Pac-12 championship game. That is selfless, not to mention a story worth telling.

Utah quarterback Nate Johnson (13) celebrates after Utah's 47-24 victory over Southern California in the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Nate Johnson had a catch and registered a rush, so that makes four games played for the true freshman QB. If Johnson plays in the Rose Bowl, his redshirt is burned.

• On the first play of the fourth quarter with Utah leading, 24-17, Whittingham opted against going on fourth-and-3 from the USC 17, instead taking a Jadon Redding 35-yard field goal. That was attention-worthy because Utah’s kicking game has been inconsistent and in similar spots, the Utes have gone there on fourth down. Redding made two field goals, but missed an extra point on Friday night.

• Utah’s win cost the Pac-12 $6 million, which is what the conference would have received had USC been selected to the CFP. It’s an important financial nugget, but good luck finding a Utah fan that cares.

• Assuming Michigan beats Purdue in the Big Ten championship game, Utah’s Rose Bowl opponent is likely to be Penn State after Ohio State reportedly has asked the organizers to not select them. This is the last traditional Pac-12 vs. Big Ten Rose Bowl (it’s a CFP semifinal next year before the expanded 12-team CFP swallows it up). Having the Nittany Lions in there will make a lot of people of a certain age from a certain part of the country very happy.

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