Sports

USC’s extraordinary season takes a devastating turn as its playoff hopes vanish

Every seemingly impossible step in USC’s extraordinary yearlong turnaround, from the stunning hire of Lincoln Riley last November to the magical moments constantly conjured by its star quarterback, had for the past year defied any sane expectation, its stunning run all but daring destiny to intervene.

The Trojans had climbed out of the Pac-12 cellar, scratching and clawing their way back from a 4-8 season to the brink of the College Football Playoff. They’d climbed back in the last minute in Corvallis, held tight in Tucson, roared past their rivals at the Rose Bowl. But by Friday night, a yearlong journey few ever expected had reached its abrupt, unceremonious end right on the doorstep of a dream season in a devastating 47-24 defeat to Utah.

It ended with Caleb Williams limping, unable to evade a ferocious Utah pass rush, and USC’s defense leaking, unable to tackle a soul. It ended in the cruelest of fashions, with Utah piling on and USC helpless, for the first time all season, to change its fate.

Utah defensive tackle Simote Pepa, right, sacks USC quarterback Caleb Williams during the third quarter.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“You get that close to winning a championship and much more,” Riley said, “it’s a tough pill to swallow.”

There was little it could do without its Heisman-bound quarterback. Williams had done all he could to play through the searing pain in his hamstring. He laced passes downfield in spite of a cut on his pinky and took hit after hit as he limped his way around the pocket. He still threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns, even as Riley tried multiple times to replace his injured quarterback, who demanded he stay in the game.

“That’s as gutsy of a performance as you’ll ever see,” Riley said of Williams.

But his tireless effort would only leave him face down on the turf, late in the fourth quarter, as a Utah crowd roared, their team on its way to the Rose Bowl.

Where USC winds up now for its postseason remains to be seen. With a bid to the College Football Playoff semifinals almost certainly out of reach, it’s likely that the Trojans wind up in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, a fitting consolation after an 11-2 season.

Though, it didn’t feel that way Friday.

“It takes so much to get here, especially where we started from, to not get it done, is very disappointing,” Riley said.

To think, it’d been barely a year since Riley took the reins of a football program that had fallen so steeply from grace.

Few of the Trojan faithful would’ve imagined at that painful nadir that USC, with a decade worth of baggage in its wake, could bag a coach like Riley, one of the most respected young minds in the sport.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising loses his helmet on a hit by USC linebacker Ralen Goforth during the third quarter.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising loses his helmet on a hit by USC linebacker Ralen Goforth during the third quarter.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Fewer still could’ve anticipated him rebuilding USC football overnight, turning one of the bleakest points in the program’s history into one of the brightest in the course of a season.

But it wasn’t enough. Not with Williams hurting and its defense still vulnerable and imperfect.

At this time last year, an 11-2 finish and New Year’s Six bowl bid in Riley’s debut season might’ve felt like a best-case scenario, a remarkable turnaround in its own right.

Perhaps that would be the case weeks from now, when calmer minds could prevail and USC’s stunning yearlong turnaround could be appreciated with necessary context.

But on Friday, the failure to push further, to win USC’s first Pac-12 title since 2017 and earn its first bid to the College Football Playoff, was front and center.

Before he was rendered mortal, Williams had wasted no time asserting himself on the biggest of stages Friday. He came out with a vengeance on USC’s opening drive, casually uncorking an off-balance deep ball 50 yards down the field to a wide-open Tahj Washington, who scored on the next play.

Utah running back Micah Bernard (2) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Utah running back Micah Bernard (2) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the Utes’ win over USC.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

He conjured even more magic with his legs on USC’s next possession, barreling through one defender, then spinning past another, sprinting forth into open field for a 59-yard gain.

One of the best defenses in college football appeared, at first, all but helpless to stop USC’s star quarterback.

By end of the first quarter, he had torched Utah for 110 passing yards and two touchdowns through the air, along with 76 more on the ground.

Up 17-3, it seemed only a matter of time before the Trojans stomped down on the gas pedal and sped off toward a smooth Pac-12 title.

But just like in their October meeting, when the Trojans also bolted to a two-touchdown lead, Utah simply refused to fold.

Utah linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, left, forces USC quarterback Caleb Williams to fumble the ball.

Utah linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, left, forces USC quarterback Caleb Williams to fumble the ball in the fourth quarter.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The script felt painfully familiar. By the third quarter, with the Heisman favorite limping along the sideline, it’d become a full-blown horror show.

Unable to move around the pocket, Williams was rendered mortal. And with its star struggling, USC’s offense stalled.

Its defense followed suit. The tackling issues that doomed USC in their last meeting reared their ugly head again.

A collision between two USC defenders sparked one deep touchdown from Cameron Rising.

A failed tackle from Calen Bullock, at the start of the fourth quarter, sparked another.

Williams did what he could to will USC back from the brink, even limping his way through a touchdown drive. But on one leg, it was no use.

File source

Tags
Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button
Close