No. 4 USC’s loss in Pac-12 title game opens playoff possibility door for Ohio State

AP photo by Steve Marcus / Utah wide receiver Money Parks outruns Southern California defensive back Mekhi Blackmon (6) to score a touchdown during the second half of the Pac-12 title game Friday night in Las Vegas. Utah running back Micah Bernard is at left.

LAS VEGAS — University of Southern California star Caleb Williams once again was starring in his own highlight video, breaking four tackles and finding himself in the open field for a 59-yard gain.

The sophomore quarterback and fourth-ranked USC looked as if they would do whatever they wanted against No. 12 Utah and coast into the College Football Playoff. Williams pulled his hamstring on that play, though, and was never the same.

Neither were the Trojans, whose hope for a spot in the College Football Playoff all but ended as Utah rolled to a 47-24 win in the Pac-12 title game Friday night, repeating as league champion.

"Our play didn't really resemble the way we played the majority of this year," said first-year USC coach Lincoln Riley, who, like Williams, was at Oklahoma in 2021. "Disappointed with some of the missed opportunities out there, but that's the name of the game when you get to this level in these kind of games against good football teams. You've got to go play good football to win, and we didn't do it."

The loss by the Trojans (11-2) could open the way for Ohio State (11-1) to take their spot in the playoff. USC is fourth in the CFP rankings, while the Buckeyes are one spot behind.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day had to be Utah's biggest fan on this night, six days after his team lost to rival Michigan with the Big Ten's East Division title up for grabs. The Buckeyes' move up in playoff consideration, along with Michigan (12-0) at No. 2 going into Saturday's Big Ten championship game against Purdue, could give that conference two playoff teams for the first time. It also would extend a CFP drought for the Pac-12, which hasn't had a representative in the four-team bracket since Washington in 2017.

"Coach Day, you're welcome," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said on the Fox Sports broadcast after the win.

Utah (10-3) is heading to the Rose Bowl, but that was the case regardless of Friday's outcome.

Whittingham's team is responsible for USC's only losses this season, having edged the Trojans 43-42 on Oct. 15 in Salt Lake City. The Utes rolled up 533 yards of offense in the rematch, and Cam Rising passed for 310 yards and three touchdowns and was selected MVP of the title game.

Williams threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns. He entered as the leading Heisman Trophy contender a week ahead of college football's most prestigious individual honor being presented, but he wasn't the same after getting injured in the first quarter. Backup quarterback Miller Moss even took snaps on the sideline in the second half, but Williams stayed on the field.

"I asked (Williams) at one point, 'Are you 50%?'" Riley said. "He was not even close to 50%. I definitely thought about taking him out. He didn't let me. He wouldn't even let me take him out at the end. In terms of guys I've coached at that position, it may be the gutsiest performance I've ever seen. Most guys wouldn't even have played, and he still gave us a chance."

Williams, who also played with a badly cut pinky on his throwing hand, said his hamstring felt like "an old rubber band."

"I was in my head and encouraging (myself that) the game was bigger than I was feeling," Williams said, drawing inspiration from a Kobe Bryant quote. "I also had a group of guys looking at me to go out there and lead them to victory."

Williams painted his fingernails before game that read "(expletive) Utah" — after doing something similar for last Saturday's regular-season finale against Notre Dame — though the Utes apparently weren't aware of that until they were told afterward.

"You can put whatever you want on your nails," Utah running back Ja'Quinden Jackson said. "I'm not going to judge him ... but I hope he liked it."

The Trojans seemed as if they were going to run away with the game, taking a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter behind some stellar play by Williams. He passed for 108 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 76 yards in the first quarter.

After USC failed to convert on fourth-and-8 from Utah's 37-yard line, the Utes scored two touchdowns in the final 3:55 of the first half, and suddenly the game was tied at 17. Instead of a rout, it was beginning to look like the shootout the Utes won in October.

The game took on that tone at times in the second half, but USC had no answer for how to slow down Utah, which outscored the Trojans 44-7 in overcoming that two-touchdown deficit.

"Just unwavering belief," Rising said.

Utah, which was playing in the Pac-12 title game for the fourth time in five seasons, is bowl eligible for the 14th time under Whittingham, a former Utes assistant who took over in 2005. He currently has the longest tenure in the Pac-12 and is second in the Football Bowl Subdivision to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, who has led the Hawkeyes since 1999.

Whittingham is 154-73 leading the Utes.

"It's an anomaly to be at a school as long as I have — that just doesn't happen in this day and age," he said. "I'm very grateful and blessed to have been at the University of Utah for as long as I have ... close to 30 years as an assistant coach and head coach. Most coaches in that time frame have been at 10 or 12 different places, so I feel very fortunate."

An announced sellout crowd of 61,195 at Allegiant Stadium, the home of the NFL's Raiders, made this the largest for a Pac-12 title game at a neutral site. It beat the previous record of 58,476 who watched USC face Stanford in 2015 in Santa Clara, California.