Utah football has already beaten USC once. Can Utah do it again?
The Utes will return to the Rose Bowl with a win in the Pac-12 championship game, while the Trojans will likely head to the College Football Playoff if they win.
It wasn’t just that USC lost a game at the University of Utah on Oct. 15, it was the manner in which the Trojans dropped their only game of the season.
Trailing by 14 points three times in the first half at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah woke up on both sides of the ball after halftime.
The defense didn’t stop Caleb Williams, but it slowed down the star sophomore quarterback significantly. The offense scored a touchdown on five of its last six possessions, capped by Cam Rising’s 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal and the ensuing two-point conversion with 48 seconds left 43-42 win.
As the No. 4 Trojans and No. 11 Utes prepare to face each other again in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday night (6 p.m., FOX), there’s more than six at stake for both sides weeks ago. Utah goes to the Rose Bowl with a win, USC probably in the College Football Playoff if the Trojans win.
The way first-year USC head coach Lincoln Riley sees it, looking back six weeks, it won’t do anyone any good.
“It’s not a revenge game, that’s not what it is,” Riley told reporters in Los Angeles earlier this week. “We played a very good football game, as did Utah in Salt Lake. It was an elite college football game that came down to one play here or there. They got us that time, but it’s not about that game. It’s a new game, a new challenge, a new setting. Teams have evolved, both teams have changed throughout the year, of course. That’s about it and obviously the opportunity is at hand.”
Whether there’s anything to be gained Friday night from a game six weeks ago is debatable, but the key defensive play that night for Utah stands out enough to be worth watching at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Williams roughed up Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scully’s defense in the first half on Oct. 15, passing for 229 yards and three touchdowns. He was limited to 9-for-15 passing for 112 yards and two touchdowns in the second half as the Trojans’ high-octane second-half offense managed just 192 yards.
The second half was a turning point for the defense. After giving up more than 500 yards of total offense to UCLA and USC in the following weeks, the unit stalled, finishing the regular season ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 and 17th nationally in total defense with 317.5 yards per game .
By contrast, Williams finished the regular season ranked fifth in total offense with 338.6 yards per game.
“That was the start of the defense turning and making a turnover, the second half of that game,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We played extremely well in the second half of that USC game, and we played pretty good defense from there.”
Whittingham noted that before the first meeting, USC’s team consisted of “10 men,” meaning one running back and four receivers, with the “11” personnel being the second group with one running back, one tight end and three receivers. Whittingham believes that has failed, and USC now offers more “11” looks to personnel.
Riley hinted that he doesn’t expect Utah to make major changes to what has led up to this point, but departed from the old coaching notion that teams develop over the course of a season. Guys get injured, new guys come in, different guys become marks.
What Riley said there is consistent with Utah being the last time.
In that first meeting, Rising injured his left knee and has worn a brace or protective sleeve ever since. Dalton Kincaid crushed the Trojans with 16 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown, but has since dealt with a shoulder injury and now what appeared to be a lower back problem last week at Colorado. Whittingham said Monday he expects Kincaid to play Friday.
Clark Phillips III missed the Colorado game, Tavion Thomas is no longer with the team, Ja’Quinden Jackson was coming off the first 100-yard game of his career.
Much of the personnel USC will see Friday night is the same as it was on Oct. 15, but that doesn’t mean Utah is the same team.
“The advantages are knowing each other and how they’re more likely to play with you,” Williams said. “The things that worked for them, they’ll probably practice a little more and do a few more reps. Work a little more and then try adding some things you haven’t seen against them.
“The downside is that you’ve already played against them, they’ve seen the things you’re good at and they’re going to practice it, get a lot of reps.”
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