Reflecting on the helmet-flying hit Cam Rising absorbed at the Pac-12 championship game

The play, late in the third quarter vs. USC, went viral on social media.

(Ric Tapia | Icon Sportswire via AP) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) has his helmet knocked off when tackled by USC Trojans linebacker Ralen Goforth (10). during the Pac-12 Championship football game between Utah Utes and USC Trojans on Dec. 2, 2022 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

Cam Rising picked up his helmet and grinned like nothing even happened.

But five days after winning the Pac-12 championship, Ja’Quinden Jackson was still thinking about one of the game’s most jaw-dropping plays.

It had gone viral on account of how violent it was.

It erased any doubt about Rising’s toughness.

And it left Jackson feeling like he owed an apology.

Yeah, even days later, that bone-crunching, helmet-dislodging collision is worth another look.

The hit

The play went viral mostly because of the violent nature of the hit, but also because of the absurdity of what immediately followed.

With the University of Utah leading USC, 24-17, late in the third quarter of Friday’s Pac-12 championship game, Rising took a shotgun snap on third-and-3 from his own 49-yard line. The fifth-year junior had only three seconds before the pocket collapsed as he rolled to his right. It became clear Rising was going to try to pick up the first down himself.

Rising cut it back inside around his own 45 to avoid one defender, then hurdled another defender who dove low in an effort to bring him down. Upon landing on his feet from the hurdle, he took another step or two and was met with a booming hit by Trojans inside linebacker Ralen Goforth. A couple of yards short of the first down, Rising’s helmet went flying off, which was met with a chorus of “oohs” from the sellout crowd at Allegiant Stadium.

That was the violence.

‘A warrior’

The absurdity lies in the fact that Rising immediately got to his feet without help, while TV cameras and photographers captured him smiling and winking. Rising was briefly checked out by Utah medical personnel, sat out his mandated one play because his helmet came off, then came right back in.

Rising finished 22-for-34 for 310 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions on his way to being named game MVP.

“Cam’s a warrior, he got up and smiled at the dude. I think it hurt him more than it hurt Cam.” All-American cornerback Clark Phillips III said Wednesday morning at the Eccles Football Center.

Added safety R.J. Hubert: “Kid’s a warrior, he’s a fighter. I knew when it happened, he’s either going to get knocked out cold or he’s going to get right back up. If it’s up to him, he’s going to get right back up.”

Was it targeting?

The play was initially ruled a legal hit, although to the untrained eye watching live, it appeared Goforth would be guilty of targeting, which would have led to an ejection. As the aftermath unfolded, the FOX broadcast team of Jason Benetti and Brock Huard kicked it to rules analyst Dean Blandino, who explained that Rising was not a defenseless player, but rather a runner. That means the only type of targeting that could be called in that instance is if Goforth led with the crown of his helmet.

The crown of Goforth’s helmet does appear to meet Rising’s facemask. As Blandino correctly pointed out, other angles show Goforth slightly turning his head before the hit, with Goforth’s shoulder taking much of the impact.

Referees did eventually review the play, but did not call Goforth for targeting. Three days after the play and with plenty of opportunity to watch the film, that still wasn’t good enough for Phillips III, a noted film junkie at the practice facility.

“Targeting, but I’m biased, though,” Phillips III said. “I saw it and I thought it was the definition, when you put the crown of your head in somebody’s face mask, chin area. That’s not right. Then, the fact that Cam’s helmet came off, that happens because your helmet hits somebody else’s helmet.”

The apology

Jackson had an interesting perspective on the play. When Rising was asked about it Friday night after the win, he said the play did not affect him. Sitting to Rising’s left with his full uniform still underneath a Pac-12 champions t-shirt, Jackson chimed in that the play did affect him.

“I was pissed about that,” Jackson said that night, indicating he should have at least tried to block Goforth on the play.

Back at the practice facility on Wednesday, Jackson echoed that sentiment, this time with some more context.

With three days worth of hindsight, Jackson believes that hit took place, at least in part, because he was, as he put it, “sitting there, watching him run” instead of finding someone to block.

Film of the play shows Jackson lined up in the backfield next to Rising in the shotgun. On the snap, Jackson ran a route into the flat, but was well-covered. As Rising takes off to Jackson’s side of the field, the broadcast pans off Jackson, but as Rising is hit by Goforth, Jackson comes back into the frame, essentially in no man’s land watching the end of the play unfold.

Even in the moment, none of this was lost on Jackson.

“I definitely feel like that was my fault, and I told him, ‘Bro, my bad, but I’ll make up for it,’ which I did,” Jackson said with a smile.

Jackson’s 53-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter was the icing, putting Utah up, 40-24, with less than 6:00 to play. A quarterback-turned-running back, Jackson finished with 105 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries, his second straight game of at least 100 yards.