Lincoln Riley and USC fail to achieve statement win over Utah

This would be USC’s biggest win since Pete Carroll roamed the sidelines. This would be the Trojans’ first road victory over a ranked team in six years. This would be USC’s first triumph at Rice-Eccles Stadium (with fans) since 2012.

This should be the statement that the Trojans are already back under Lincoln Riley – tough enough to win in a rowdy atmosphere carefully crafted to torment them.

It was all of that until USC finally resigned for the first time this season – the only first that would come to fruition on a nightmare-inducing Saturday night in mid-October that pushed the Trojans from the ranks of the undefeated.

Utah 43, USC 42.

The seventh-ranked Trojans had last emerged victorious from that House of Secrets on their Pac-12 Farewell Tour, but their defense faltered and gave up a 415-yard pass to Utah quarterback Cameron Rising, who perfectly erased the spectacular 381 by USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

The 12 best penalties of the season were also responsible. Riley’s Trojans just weren’t ready to win a game of this magnitude away from home, despite their early indications to the contrary on Saturday.

“We didn’t play as cleanly as we wanted on all three sides,” Riley said, “and it came down to it, they made one more move than we did or we made one more mistake, however you want to look at it .”

Many USC fans who began dreaming of a run to the college football playoffs will find it hard not to harp on the many errors — like each of the unthinkable 15 catches by Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid.

After his first loss as a USC leader, Riley made it a point to stand up for his players. He purposefully went for the Pac-12 game officials, who made two questionable roughing-the-passer calls that helped tip the game in the Utes’ favor.

“We had a lot to overcome tonight, and we came pretty damn close,” Riley said. “This team has the inner strength, the culture, the desire to win, the desire to overcome anything that comes your way. … We have enough of it to make it.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams stands on the sidelines during the team's loss to Utah

USC quarterback Caleb Williams talks to a teammate on the sidelines during the first half of Saturday.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

The Trojans, 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12, have been dropped squarely into the center of the pressure cooker they have been unable to escape from for the past decade. Even before USC catapulted itself into the top 10 earlier this season, Utah had circled that game as the one it had to have if the Utes were to repeat themselves as Pac-12 champions and fight for a playoff spot.

Evidence of the added emotional emphasis could be seen on the Utes’ helmets, which were adorned with images of two fallen teammates, Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, who both tragically died within the last two years. It was no coincidence that USC was chosen as the game to honor her memory and get the home fans excited.

Trailing 21-7 in the second quarter, Utah brought the family members of Jordan and Lowe onto the field for a touching moment of applause, and the Utes promptly moved to 28-21 at halftime and leveled the second by 28 points on the opening run Half. The message? They would not abandon their brothers.

Utah is a proud program, and after last season’s near-win against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, the Utes’ preseason rankings at No. 7 felt entirely reasonable. But after Utah dropped a heartthrob in the season opener and fell flat at UCLA last week, Utah came out on Saturday desperately needing a win to salvage its season.

All of these factors led me to believe that the Trojans would have to play the game of their lives to stay undefeated.

From the kickoff, they seemed up to the task, following their confident captain Williams, who rushed 55 yards away on the opening run and never looked back. Seeing nothing but green at first, USC’s explosive skill players blasted away and took over much of Utah territory. Before the Utah student division could even fill in and complete the Rice-Eccles blackout, USC led 14-0.

Watching Riley’s offense progress through the first half of the season was fun, but this duel with Kyle Whittingham’s unit was looming. Could USC run the ball against the ever-aggressive Utes front? Could Williams avoid the big blunder when the bright lights were on and a national audience tuned in to see if the Trojans were really real?

The answers were resounding. The Trojans ran the ball with ease, but they didn’t really have to as Williams distributed the ball from border to border and fed his transfer stars Jordan Addison and Mario Williams.

Neither team played defense, but before you get too critical, did you happen to watch the Alabama-Tennessee game? It’s somehow accepted when Southeastern Conference teams win on offense. USC defense coordinator Alex Grinch would be the first to tell you his group has a long way to go.

Despite its faltering defense, USC was leading 35-28 as the third quarter drew to a close, and victory seemed within reach. But, no surprise, during the fourth-quarter break, Utah again honored the memory of Jordan and Lowe, asking the crowd to come together for a “moment of volume,” as if calling on the heavens for help.

Indeed, the Utes marched through the field with the help of four USC penalties to tie the score at 35.

They took their first lead of the game with 48 seconds left, 43-42, on a brave two-point conversion run from Rising.

USC will feel devastated heading into bye week, but it still has it all. If you beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl on November 19, the Trojans will most likely head to the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas.

“A lot of our staff, we’ve been there, we know what it looks like to go on a run,” Riley said. “This team has a real chance. If we handle it the way I think we have a real chance. i’m pissed right now They struggled with their guts. Well, s— I’m ready to go to training now.”

A run to a Pac-12 title is certainly within reach for this USC team. But the playoff talk can calm down now. This defense is at least a year away from reaching a national championship level, and therefore USC. Lincoln Riley and USC fail to achieve statement win over Utah

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