How a loss to Utah inspired USC’s run to the Pac-12 title game

The moment Justin Dedich dawned that this USC season was going to be something special came seven weeks ago in Salt Lake City, amid the devastation of his first and only loss.

USC’s 43-42 loss to Utah last month was a gut punch. When the Trojans invaded the Rice Eccles Stadium visitors’ locker room, the senior captain was struck by the scene. The emotions of the last-minute defeat were open. The players sat at their lockers in tears. But behind her swollen eyes, Dedich saw something he hadn’t seen in his past four seasons at USC.

Not sadness or indifference in the face of defeat, but determination.

“It was a different mindset from this team,” said Dedich. “Some teams … they wouldn’t think about losing. You would be closest. But we were upset. It kindled a fire in us.”

USC coach Lincoln Riley felt it too.

“If we handle this the way I think we do,” Lincoln Riley said that night, “we have a real chance.”

Seven flawless weeks later, that shot has never been more real for USC. The Trojans are not only one win away from their first Pac-12 title since 2017, but also from their first College Football Playoff semifinal call-up. All that stands in Friday’s way is the one team that lit the fire among them in the first place.

For Utah, the first meeting of the two teams this season was something of a turning point. After letting USC’s offense run free in the first half, Utah’s defense closed in the second half. It didn’t slow down over the next five weeks, holding off five Pac-12 opponents at an average of just 17 points and 271 yards per game. Both installments, spanning an entire season, would rank in the top 10 nationally.

“We’ve been really tight on defense since that point,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

USC has found a move of its own defensively in recent weeks, keeping three of its last four opponents to 135 rushing yards or fewer. It will take every ounce of this progression to hold off the Utes’ rejuvenated charge.

A consistently strong rushing team, Utah has had perhaps the best rushing offense in college football for the past four weeks, averaging 281 yards per game on the ground and 13 touchdowns. The season’s lowest rushing performance came in his first meeting with USC; However, when Utah blasted 424 yards through the air that night, a ground play was hardly necessary.

This time, Riley reminds us, no team is likely to follow the same plan.

“We asked the guys to reset to understand that this game is going to be a different game — a different challenge, a different setting,” Riley said, “and you have to be ready to respond.”

Utah's tight end Dalton Kincaid is tackled by USC defenseman Jaylin Smith.

Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) is tackled by USC defenseman Jaylin Smith (19) in the second half in Salt Lake City on Saturday.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

USC’s response will likely involve a very different plan for tight end Dalton Kincaid, who shredded the Trojans’ defense for 16 catches and 234 yards. Since then he has rushed for just 292 yards in four games and could be limited this week by an injury he picked up last Saturday.

But his standout performance in October still lives on rent-free in Alex Grinch’s nightmares.

“If he makes big catches and we don’t attack him, I know exactly what’s going to happen on Friday,” USC’s defense coordinator said of Kincaid.

USC will have its own creases ready for the rematch, the most effective – and obvious – being the addition of a healthy Jordan Addison, who was injured in his last game. A more robust rushing attack might also be in order after the Trojans hit a season-low 27 times in their only loss.

Still, the promise of a Pac-12 title and a playoff run will most likely rest on the right arm and improvisational magic of USC’s Heisman-tied quarterback Caleb Williams, a formula that has worked reasonably well for the Trojans through an 11-1 campaign .

“You’re not going to flip a script, and neither are we,” Riley said. “But I think teams evolve. You are challenged in different ways.”

This script for USC has been nothing short of picture perfect in the seven weeks since they last met Utah. The only question left is whether Friday will end with redemption… or more heartbreak. How a loss to Utah inspired USC’s run to the Pac-12 title game

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