Caleb Williams and No. 7 USC fall at No. 20 Utah for first loss

Six weeks of almost unconcerned about the extraordinary had led Caleb Williams to that climactic crescendo, with a sea of ​​black roars from the enemy stands and all the high hopes for the USC season impossibly at stake.

All night – and all season actually – he had successfully dodged danger at every turn, leading USC to a flawless 6-0 start through a series of stunning escapes and scintillating passes into the field you have to see to believe it He had done everything he could to help USC escape when asked to do so.

But never had he been cornered like this, with less than a minute remaining, the entire field in front of him and USC a point behind, the first deficit it couldn’t avoid this season as Utah finally finished a stunning 43 – 42.

This time it was the Utes who managed to deliver the most devastating hits at the worst possible time, driving through thick and thin when it came down to navigating three thirds down and a fourth down the goal line, ahead of quarterback Cameron Rising broke the plane and broke the game up. A do-or-die two-point conversion would give Utah their first lead of the game with just 48 seconds remaining.

USC needed a miracle. And for once, that was too much to ask of his quarterback.

Up until this moment he had certainly done his best. Williams completed 25 of 42 passes for 381 yards and five touchdowns while adding 57 yards on the ground in what turned out to be one of the most dynamic performances of his collegiate career to date.

But the last few seconds passed far too quickly. Desperate blows fell on the lawn.

“Up to the last second I thought we were going to win the game,” said Travis Dye, who rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws against Utah in the first half on October 15, 2022.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams rushed for 381 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 57 yards, but it wasn’t enough.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

The realization hit Williams in the final moments as the field filled with a sea of ​​black. As he left, his head rolled back, tears welling in his eyes.

“We’ve put a lot of work into this for so long,” Williams said a few minutes later, his eyes still swollen, the pain still fresh. “I’ll be honest, I hate losing. I really, really, just hate it.”

He’d held USC almost alone up to that point, pushing on despite a defense being rolled over by Utah and his own dynamic quarterback in Rising for a season-high 43 points and 562 yards. As of November 2017, USC had not allowed more than 400 yards through the air, but Rising managed 415.

The Ventura native eventually made mincemeat of the USC defense and accounted for five touchdowns, including three on the ground. Coach Lincoln Riley called it USC’s worst tackle performance this season, largely due to Rising.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising searches for a receiver in the first half on Oct. 15, 2022.

Ute’s quarterback Cameron Rising is looking for a receiver. He threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another three touchdowns.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Ultimately, it was too much for USC to survive. It didn’t get past its season-high 12 penalties, including two questionable roughing-the-passer calls that kept two-time critical goals alive in Utah.

When asked about his feelings about these particular punishments, Riley was blunt.

“The lead was really bad tonight,” he said, “but we still should have won the game.”

After all, USC was almost completely in control — until it handed the ball back to Utah one last time. Williams had already led a crucial drive that might have been the game winner on another night.

This time he’d made it without Jordan Addison, USC’s top receiver, who injured his leg in the second half and was seen on crutches after the game. Still completing five of his last six runs of that ride, Williams found Michael Jackson on one screen run in the face of an all-encompassing flash. Jackson ran 20 yards for a go-ahead, giving Utah more than four minutes to make his final statement.

It turned out to be too much time.

When the clock ran out, Riley considered taking USC’s timeouts. He opted to let it run instead and was crossing his fingers that his defense could pull off a crucial stop. But the decision backfired.

“It’s close at this point because if you stop them, you might not have to do anything,” Riley said. “We got the ball back with a lot of time.”

It shouldn’t have come to this point, of course, not with USC and its quarterback burning Utah’s defense through most of Saturday’s loss.

Williams seemed set for a magical night from the start. In USC’s first period, Williams wriggled out of the pocket and found nothing but green grass in front of him. He took off and sprinted 55 meters before eventually falling. Two plays later, Dye ran eight more yards for the game-opening score.

Trojans wide receiver Mario Williams catches a pass next to Ute's safety RJ Hubert (11) in the first half October 15, 2022.

Trojans wide receiver Mario Williams catches a pass in the first half next to Utes safety RJ Hubert (11).

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

On the next drive, the quarterback was in full control, comfortably in the pocket, dodging rushers and reading passes across the field. In a dizzying array of bait, moves and play-fixing, USC’s offense came to life, led by its quarterback and a coach determined to dig deeper than usual in his bag of tricks.

Williams led a scoring drive without needing a third down, topped by a two-yard Addison touchdown. He led another in just four games and climbed free before spotting Mario Williams in wide-open downfield for a 65-yard gain. Williams’ next pass went to Kyron Hudson for another two-yard score.

With his offense, it seemed like USC could once again sprint to an unassailable lead and leave his opponent in the dust. Utah had already missed a field goal and appeared to commit a game-changing red zone interception for USC safety Calen Bullock late in the first quarter. But the first of two calls nagging the passerby — this one on Stanley Ta’ufo’ou — would undo it. Utah would get a score in the next game.

A turnover that might have turned the tide entirely toward USC instead left Utah just enough room to get a foot in the door. It soon appeared.

Utah fans celebrate the team's win over USC on October 15, 2022 in Salt Lake City.

Utah fans celebrate the team’s win over USC Saturday night in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

It took just 45 seconds for Utah to score in the closing seconds of the half. It didn’t waste much time after halftime either, marching down the field on a third straight touchdown drive and leveling by 28 points.

Nothing seemed to stop Utah’s offense down this stretch until Eric Gentry collided with Utah’s Micah Bernard inside the Trojans’ own five-yard line and the ball bounced out.

The fumble seemed like a moment USC could take advantage of.

It never did.

Instead, a night long ago circled as a crossroads for USC and its suddenly plausible playoff dreams ended with the Trojans taking a wrong turn down a dark road. Still, the coach was confident they would find a way back.

“This team has a real chance,” Riley said after his first loss at USC.

“If we handle this the way I think we have a real chance.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/story/2022-10-15/usc-at-utah Caleb Williams and No. 7 USC fall at No. 20 Utah for first loss

Emma Bowman

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