Takeaways: Caleb Williams, USC set for revenge rematch with Utah

Two hours before the Pac-12 championship matchup would be decided, Eric Gentry was carefully evaluating his options when asked if he wanted a rematch against the team that spoiled USC’s perfect season.

After a two-second pause, the center linebacker smiled widely.

“Happy to be in the Pac-12 Championship,” Gentry said with a big grin after USC’s 38-27 win over No. 15 Notre Dame on Saturday at the Coliseum.

Friday’s Pac-12 championship game will include a chance for revenge for the Trojans, who may avenge their Oct. 15 loss to Utah (9-3, 7-2). The Utes got just enough help to get back into the title game despite losing to Oregon two weeks ago, and earned their spot in Las Vegas on Saturday with a win over Colorado, Washington’s win over Washington State and Oregon’s loss to Oregon State.

Not only can the No. 6 Trojans (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) win their first conference title since 2017, a win could potentially secure them a spot in the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs. With Saturday’s losses at No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 LSU, the way seems clear for a one-loss Pac-12 champion to finally end the conference playoff drought.

If USC can top its resume with a Pac-12 championship win over No. 14 Utah, the Trojans will have three consecutive ranked wins for committee consideration and a road win over No. 21 Oregon State.

USC enters the championship with momentum following a win over Notre Dame on Saturday night. Here are three takeaways from the game:

Ready for the spotlight

USC running back Austin Jones finds room to run against Notre Dame in the first half at the Coliseum

USC running back Austin Jones finds room to run against Notre Dame in the first half at the Coliseum Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

While Caleb Williams stole the show with four touchdowns, a Heisman pose and an imaginary crown ceremony, running back Austin Jones’ contributions helped define the game.

The Stanford transfer rushed for a career-high 154 yards with 25 carries and helped USC roll up 204 yards on the ground. Jones has hit consecutive-week season highs since Travis Dye’s injury at the end of the season.

To see their leading rusher carted off the field could have cast a shadow over the team for weeks. Instead, Jones performed effortlessly.

“I love this game, I love this team and no matter what, I told them at the start of the season I’m going to give it my all, no matter what I have to do,” Jones said. “Leading or not starring, I don’t care.”

Jones totaled just 65 rushing yards in the five games before Dye’s injury. He was sidelined in part for inconsistent pass protection, but seeing him shine as a leading defender came as no surprise to the Trojans.

“Travis and Austin were 1A and 1B,” said USC coach Lincoln Riley. “We’re very fortunate to have some really good backs and Austin stepped up. He ran physically tonight. They talk about establishing the running game. That was the game for me.”

Execute play fight

USC linebacker Clyde Moore reacts after a defensive stop against Notre Dame at the Coliseum

USC linebacker Clyde Moore (35) reacts after a defensive stop against Notre Dame Saturday at the Coliseum.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

He’s known for high-octane attacks, electric quarterbacks, and dynamic receivers. But don’t accuse Riley of coaching an all-finesse team.

While Notre Dame’s offensive was known for its physicality, it was the Trojans that won in the trenches. USC held the Irish with 26 carries for 90 rushing yards. It was Notre Dame’s third game under 100 rushing yards this season after they started the game with an average of 191.2 yards.

“Notre Dame has traditionally been a physical, pounding team and Coach Riley was just like, ‘Hey man, we’re this team,'” Jones said. “We have to get involved with that too. We have to go out and show everyone who we really are. We’re not just a team that’s all about flash and glitz and glamour, we really get into the trenches and really work.”

USC clinched its fourth game with at least 200 rushing yards this season. Riley said he was “sick of hearing how we were going to get beaten in the running game.”

“That didn’t happen,” he added defiantly.

Welcome back

USC linebacker Eric Gentry reacts on the sidelines in Salt Lake City after injuring himself.

USC linebacker Eric Gentry reacts on the touchline in Salt Lake City October 15 after injuring himself. After recovering, he will face the Utes again in the Pac-12 championship game.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Six weeks ago, Gentry could only hop into the USC huddle on one leg, helpless when his defense was beaten by Utah.

It seemed like a critical hit at the time for a defense desperate for playmakers. But when Gentry returned from injury on Saturday, USC was poised for the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs — and his defense was a big reason.

“It’s a big difference,” said defender Tuli Tuipulotu of Gentry’s return. “EG is just a great player, you know that.”

After injuring his ankle for the first time in October, it wasn’t immediately clear to Gentry that he would be back this season.

“I felt it click, so I figured it was something else,” Gentry said. “But it was OK, I’m happy to help the team as much as possible again.”

Gentry’s return played a part in that resurgence against Notre Dame as the centre-back led USC in tackles (nine) and forced a fumble.

“I could be anywhere but I’m in LA playing the Coliseum,” Gentry said. “I don’t want to be anywhere else, so I’m glad just to be here.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/story/2022-11-27/usc-college-football-playoff-takeaways Takeaways: Caleb Williams, USC set for revenge rematch with Utah

Emma Bowman

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