USC juggles Pac-12 title and CFP hopes in Utah rematch

The Trojans and Utes will meet in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Championship game just seven weeks after their epic showdown in Salt Lake City.

The USC football world is swirling with excitement. 

Both the AP Poll and College Football Playoff Committee awarded the team a No. 4 ranking, sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams is a shoe-in to win the Heisman Trophy and the Trojans are in Las Vegas ready to play a conference championship game inside Allegiant Stadium.

As head coach Lincoln Riley continues to lead this USC team to milestone after milestone, there is a certain composure to the Trojans as they prepare for Friday’s rematch against No. 11 University of Utah — the team responsible for their only loss of the season ahead of the Pac-12 Championship.

“This is not a revenge game, that’s not what this is,” Riley said. “This is not about that game. This is a new game, a new challenge and a new setting. Both teams have certainly changed throughout the year, so this is about the opportunities at hand.”

In five seasons at the University of Oklahoma, Riley won four Big 12 titles, and on two occasions, against teams he lost to earlier in that season. He has been in this position before, and the external pressures are getting to neither him nor his coveted QB.

“[The attention] hasn’t changed anything for me,” Williams said. “One of the things we did two weeks ago was block out the noise, because we have bigger goals in mind.”

Williams is having the best season of his young career, and ever more clearly the best season in all of college football this year. As the other Heisman candidates falter either due to injury or upset, USC’s signal caller has remained steady throughout his first year in Southern California.

Williams’ performance through just 12 games in cardinal and gold already has the sophomore in the company of Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart as one of the greatest QBs to ever call the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum home.

A pristine 34-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio is just the headliner for what has been a season-long portfolio of unbelievable scrambles out of the pocket, clutch throws on the run and statement wins. 

For Williams, Friday is a reminder of one of the most significant moments of USC’s season — the team’s rebound from a 43-42 loss to the Utes in Salt Lake City.

Williams said there was a “positive vibe” with how the team responded to the loss that was “completely different from times that [he] lost before.”

“A great book or story won’t be a great book or story without some adversity in it,” Williams said. “After the [Utah] game we lost, that was one of the main things being said in the locker room.”

Since the loss to Utah that dropped their rank to No. 12, the Trojans rallied to win five games in a row, including statement wins against No. 16 UCLA and No. 15 Notre Dame.

“We were tested in a way that we hadn’t — we experienced failure,” Riley said. “We hadn’t experienced that yet, and so the mood in the locker room was disappointed but not defeated, and maybe even more inspired. And most importantly, we’ve done something about it. You lose one in the middle of the season and you have to claw your way back into a position like this, and we’ve done that.”

From a macro perspective, the wins keep coming for USC, but that is largely in part because of the minor adjustments made at both ends of the football.

In what has been by far the greatest criticism of USC football this season, the run defense has shown steady improvement of late. The Trojans held Notre Dame to 90 yards on the ground on Saturday, the team’s third best game against the run this season. 

“Everyone is doing their job and communicating,” senior linebacker Shane Lee said. “We are on the same page. When we do that, we are a hard defense to go against.”

USC still allows an average of 142 rush yards per game, which is 53rd in the nation, according to ESPN.

For reference, the University of Georgia, the team that USC is slated to play in the first round of the CFP, averages just 79.5 rush YPG — the best mark in college football.

Utah is a team that likes to keep the ball on the ground. Over 56% of the team’s offensive plays are runs, and carries are for the most part split between five players all with well over 300 rushing yards on the season.

Junior running back Tavion Thomas, who leads Utah with 687 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns, was the most distinguished runner on the team, but a toe injury suffered against the University of Oregon on Nov. 19 caused him to end his collegiate career early ahead of his declaration for the NFL Draft.

It is worth monitoring redshirt freshman quarterback-turned-running back Ja’quinden Jackson, who broke out for 117 yards and three scores against the University of Colorado last week. Formerly the QB3 for Utah, injuries in the team’s backfield allowed Jackson to begin taking important reps at RB in Sept. Now, the freshman will most likely be the primary ball carrier for the Utes in the Pac-12 Championship game.

In the pass, Utah’s 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior tight end Dalton Kincaid will yet again be called on to wreak havoc on the USC secondary. In their last matchup, Kincaid exploded for 234 receiving yards on 16 receptions and a touchdown.

How the duo of junior QB Cameron Rising and Kincaid matchup against the Trojans defense could very well define how this second meeting will go. Even with all of the noise of playoffs, championships and other trophies, USC has not forgotten what Utah is capable of. 

“Anytime someone has a career game against you, there’s a level of embarrassment about it,” USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “It’s all hands on deck with an opponent like this, one that we have a lot of respect for.”

The Trojans and Utes will play the Pac-12 Championship game inside Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday at 5 p.m.

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