It seemed like an absolute lock as kickoff loomed in Las Vegas. The USC Trojans would avenge an earlier loss in Salt Lake to Utah, finish with one loss, and head to the playoffs for a possible matchup against Georgia. However, in a desert oasis where fortunes are too often lost, the Trojans season and national championship hopes came to an untimely end.
The Utes would absolutely dominate, winning in stunning fashion 47-24. The loss sent Utah to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, while USC is headed to a New Year’s Six game, possibly at Jerry World for the Cotton Bowl.
Going into the 12:11 mark in the second quarter, it looked to be business as usual for the Trojans. It was 17-3 USC and, for all the world to see, appeared to be on their way to college football’s final four. Then, the game began to turn in the Utes favor. With 3:55 left in the second quarter, the score was 17-10 Southern Cal. As the first half clock showed 00:02 left, the game was tied 17-17.
Utah wouldn’t look back, and they would not trail or be tied on the scoreboard for the rest of the game. Quickly, the Utes would increase the lead to 24-17, and from there on, the Pac-12 Championship Game would become a tour de force performance for Kyle Whittingham and Utah. USC would get close early in the fourth quarter, when they narrowed the gap to 27-24. The Utes weren’t going to be denied as they made their final case for being the best in the conference, posting a final score of 47-24, and knocking the Trojans out of the College Football Playoff equation.
— Utah Football (@Utah_Football) December 3, 2022
Lincoln Riley and his team have nothing to apologize for. The first year head coach has turned it around remarkably fast in Los Angeles. They faced a team the media and college football watchers had discounted, and it showed. Utah showed up motivated and with a sizable chip on their shoulder. That said, the loss exposed three critical flaws with the Trojans that need to be addressed before the 2023 final campaign in the Pac-12.
1 – Poor tackling and bad defense
Utah ran over, under, and around an undisciplined Trojan defense. USC would give up 533 yards of total offense, including 223 yards rushing and a 310-yard, three touchdown performance from Utes quarterback Cameron Rising. Riley’s defense has been their Achilles heel all season, and on a night the offense wasn’t able to simply out score their opponent, it would cost them their biggest game of the season.
MONEY PARKS!!!!! 👀 @MonterrenParks
— Utah Athletics (@utahathletics) December 3, 2022
2 – Offensive Line woes
The Trojans offensive line was pushed around and pushed back, forcing an injured and hobbled Caleb Williams to seldom be set when he threw the football and making the USC rushing attack ineffective. It also forced Lincoln Riley to go conservative when he would have wanted to gamble a bit. Williams had a respectable night, as he would attempt 41 passes, completing 28 of them for 363 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Austin Jones struggled running the football, gaining only 35 yards on 15 attempts. Utah would snuff out the Trojans rushing attack, making their offense one-dimensional as Kyle Whittingham’s defense could focus on the one legged USC quarterback.
3 – Lincoln Riley was out coached
Lincoln Riley became ultraconservative when he needed the opposite approach. On a night and in a game where everything was on the line, he too became single-dimensional in his coaching style. On a relatively short fourth -and-goal, he’d kick a field goal instead of keeping the pressure on with a first quarter lead. To add to the head-scratching in Los Angeles, Riley would choose to go for it on fourth-and-eight. Williams would have his pass broken up, and Utah would begin the process of closing out the Trojans before the gun would sound to mark the end of the first half, and an end to the USC season.
The Last Word
In the aftermath of a season that could have been, all is not lost in Los Angeles. Heisman front-runner Caleb Williams will have a long postseason to heal from an absolute brutal three game run of UCLA, Notre Dame, and the second and last knockout round against Utah. College football watchers should be well aware that after his debut season, Lincoln Riley will reload for 2023, the final season in the Pac-12 before heading to the Big Ten. Utah stands to lose a lot of talent to the NFL Draft and will likely not possess the kind of roster that runs deep. Quarterback Cameron Rising, who saw his stock rise this season, has the kind of athletic build and arm that can get the ball anywhere on the field. A team drafting deep into the third round should take a long look.
Don’t expect USC to be anywhere other than in the mix once again in 2023. The status quo will see only a minor shakeup with teams like Oregon State, Washington State, and perhaps a challenge or two from Arizona State who has a new head coach, and Arizona. The Wildcats showed the kind of progress that could see them not be an easy ‘layup’ for teams who have them on the schedule.
The USC Trojans went to Las Vegas and lost big. It’s the perfect city for big wins and even bigger losses. However, they are not a one hit wonder. 2023, plus one year under the collective belt of Lincoln Riley and his Men of Troy, will make them an early favorite. And they are.