Lincoln Riley loses his mind as USC goes bust in loss to Utah

The invincible quarterback was tied. First, the invincible quarterback lost mobility.

Then the brilliant coach lost his mind.

Eventually, the lightning-fast USC Trojans hobbled and stumbled and splashed, their sweetest dreams dying an ugly death in the desert.

Utah 47, USC 24, and who would have thought?

That Friday night Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium should be a crowning glory for the No. 4 Trojans, a stunningly brilliant debut season for coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams should culminate in the team’s first conference title in five years and his first-place finish in the college football playoffs.

Then Williams suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter. And Riley suffered from multiple brain spasms in the second quarter. And the Trojans finally lost their resilience against a relentless Utah team, who bounced back from a 17-3 deficit to run down tacklers, charge past linemen and ultimately crush the Trojans’ hopes with the brutality of a raging craps table .

USC went bankrupt. And now, instead of battling for a national championship in the CFP Final Four, the Trojans will have to settle for the consolation prize of a secondary New Year’s Six Bowl. They were the top Pac-12 team during the regular season and yet they don’t even get to play in the Rose Bowl, an honor that goes to Utah for a second year in a row.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams slowly stands up with a bloodied right hand after his release.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams is slowly getting up with a bloodied right hand after being released late Friday in the fourth quarter.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“You’ve come as far as this team and this program in the last 12 months to come close to winning a championship and more so close to obviously failing, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” Riley said afterwards .

It was still a pleasant surprise of a season as USC bounced back from a 4-8 debacle to win 11-2 and return to national prominence. But it could have been so much more. And after we took that two-touchdown lead early in the second quarter, it should have been so much more.

But when the chance presented itself to drive a stake in Utah’s heart, Riley went conservative, then just plain goofy. The Trojans allowed the Utes to get back in the game with two touchdowns late in the first half to level. Then, in the second half, Utah used Williams’ limp and the usual weak USC defense to send thousands of Trojans fans back onto the Strip, with their team suffering the night’s biggest loss in a loser-built city.

The Trojans essentially lost it when Williams lost it and Riley lost it.

It started with Williams, who injured a hamstring on a thrilling 59-yard run in the first quarter but continued to play with obvious pain.

“I felt it the rest of the game, but I had something that I always walk past,” Williams said. “Kobe [Bryant] I’ve always said the game is bigger than what you feel.

Throughout the night, Williams was the epitome of toughness. But he lost his ability to climb and his ability to consistently throw pinpoint passes.

“He wasn’t even close to 50%…in terms of the guys I’ve coached at that position, maybe the bravest performance I’ve seen,” Riley said.

Williams was a 28-for-41 pass for 363 yards and three touchdowns, and no, that shouldn’t affect his place at the top of the Heisman Trophy race. But his lack of mobility allowed him to be dismissed seven times while transformed into a statue, rushing just 21 meters with a dozen porters.

Even after William’s injury, the Trojans had the momentum. Then a few Riley choices gave it away.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams covers his helmet with a towel in the final moments of a 47-24 loss.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams covers his helmet with a towel in the dying moments of a 47-24 loss to Utah in Friday’s Pac-12 title game.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Trojans scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, took a 14-3 lead and seemed unstoppable. Then the coach practically stopped them.

On her third possession, Williams led the USC downfield to a first and a goal from the Utah three-yard line. After a full run and two incompletes, the Trojans faced a fourth and a goal.

When you’re USC, you naturally go for the touchdown, right? Especially when you’re dominating the game on both sides of the ball? Especially since that touchdown could give you the feeling of an unassailable lead?

Not this time. USC settled for a 20-yard field goal from Denis Lynch, and it felt like an opportunity was missed.

Moments later, after Bryson Shaw recovered a fumble forced by Max Williams at the Utah 39-yard line, the Trojans had another chance to quell the spirit of the Utes.

USC coach Lincoln Riley, center, leaves the field after Utah's 47-24 win in Friday's Pac-12 championship game.

USC coach Lincoln Riley, center, leaves the field after Utah’s 47-24 win in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game.

(Steve Marcus/Associated Press)

But once again, Riley snorted and called two running plays for Austin Jones despite being completely ineffective. Runs were crammed, and USC faced a fourth and eighth situation, and it seemed like the right time for a punt, perhaps one of Williams’ trademark doggie kicks.

But no. This time the Trojans went for it, Williams’ pass was cut off and a rejuvenated Utah team owned the ball, momentum and the rest of the first half.

At that time, USC had surpassed Utah 228-89.

But then, for the rest of the game, Utah won USC 444-191.

“I think tonight we obviously played very well defensively early on and had a lot of momentum,” Riley said. “They confiscated it there in the second quarter.”

Have you ever. Check out the last two rides in Utah halfway through.

Eleven plays, 63 yards and a touchdown on an eight-round bulldozing run by Ja’Quinden Jackson.

USC punted and…

Fourteen plays, 81 yards, touchdown with two seconds remaining at halftime on a four-yard pass from Cameron Rising to Jaylen Dixon.

The half ended in a 17-17 draw, with Utah dancing off the field with a deafening roar as the Trojans slipped away quietly.

“We had some chances to improve, we had a chance to really break up early in the game,” Riley said. “We didn’t do it.”

The Utes took the lead for the first time – and definitively – early in the third quarter when Rising Money hit Parks with a pass down the middle as Trojan defensemen Latrell McCutchin and Eric Gentry behind him in a symbolic play for the USC- collided in the evening.

It was messy. It was painful. And in the most unthinkable way it was over. Lincoln Riley loses his mind as USC goes bust in loss to Utah

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