LAS VEGAS — All season long, USC relied on quarterback Caleb Williams’ ability to improvise on his feet. His spins away from defenders, running away from the line of scrimmage just to turn around and take off for a positive play kept the Trojans alive for many weeks and became the fodder for his Heisman Trophy sizzle reel.
But what fourth-ranked USC got in the second half of the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night was Williams standing in the pocket as the Utah pass rush descended on him, unable to move as he tucked the ball and took a sack. Then the quarterback limping off the field as USC prepared for another punt.
With Williams relegated to mortality by an injured leg, the magic of the USC season soon evaporated with him. First, USC’s 14-point first-half lead disappeared. Then, so did the Trojans’ hopes of a College Football Playoff appearance with a 47-24 loss to the 11th-ranked Utes at Allegiant Stadium.
The first quarter looked like a coronation ceremony for Williams and the Trojans (11-2). He jumped up in the air to complete a 50-yard pass to Tahj Washington, then made a soft toss to Washington on the next play for a touchdown and the first points of the game.
On the next drive, Williams broke out a 58-yard run. He broke two tackles on the play, then directed his receivers on whom to block before sliding down at the Utah 12. It’s possible this was the play where Williams hurt his leg, as he took a delay of game penalty on the next snap, seemingly still gathering himself.
When USC faced a fourth-and-1 three plays later, no one covered running back Raleek Brown out of the backfield on play action and Williams found him for a 3-yard score.
Meanwhile, the USC defense was holding up its end of the bargain. No one expected USC to pitch a shutout, but after safety Calen Bullock broke up a third-down pass at the goal line, Utah had to settle for a field goal on its opening drive.
When safety Bryson Shaw flew in to break up a third-down pass on the next drive and force a punt, USC had the opportunity to go up by three scores.
But a pair of contradictory fourth-down decisions by head coach Lincoln Riley breathed life into Utah (10-3).
Facing a fourth-and-goal at the Utah 3, Riley opted to have Denis Lynch kick a field goal to make it a 17-3 game. Riley had gone for it on fourth down twice already in the game, but he opted to go the conservative route.
Then after Shaw recovered a fumble forced by Max Williams, the Trojans soon were facing fourth-and-8 from the Utah 37. Riley kept the offense on the field, and Caleb Williams’ pass to Jordan Addison fell incomplete.
The Utes took the turnover on downs and drove the full 63 yards for their first touchdown of the game. They left enough time for USC to answer before the half, but the Trojans stalled at midfield and punted. Utah took advantage of the two minutes left in the half, driving 81 yards in 14 plays to tie the score.
But while it was the USC defense that gave up the points, it was the USC offense that put its counterpart in that situation with an 0-for-5 mark on third down in the first half.
Somehow, though, the USC defense got off the field to start the second half, forcing a punt. But Williams overthrew on first down, was sacked on second and handed off to Jones for a 2-yard carry on third.
As Utah took the lead on a 57-yard Money Parks reception and USC managed just one third-down yard, Williams tried to right himself on the sidelines. He rode the stationary bike, jumped from side to side and did high knees.
And he was able to summon some of his old magic. After Utah pushed the lead to 10, Williams willed himself and the Trojans down the field, scrambling on the one good leg for a third-down conversion and side-stepping sacks until he delivered the ball to Mario Williams for a touchdown. After each play, Caleb Williams limped to the line of scrimmage, soldiering on.
But Utah roared back with a 60-yard touchdown, with tight end Thomas Yassmin running over Bullock and into the end zone. Williams was intercepted on the next drive, and Utah back Ja’Quinden Jackson ended any hope of a Trojan comeback with a 53-yard touchdown run.
Williams, usually the cure-all for the Trojans, could not carry a team that could not run behind an offensive line battered by injuries, and he could not outscore an offense that broke seemingly every tackle attempt by a USC defender.
But he still tried, absorbing more sacks into the final minute until Riley saw enough and sent in backup Miller Moss. Williams could only limp off, moments before Utah rushed the field in celebration.