This was going to be USC’s biggest win since Pete Carroll roamed the sidelines. This was going to be the Trojans’ first road victory over a ranked team in six years. This was going to be USC’s first triumph at Rice-Eccles Stadium (with fans) since 2012.
This was going to be the statement that the Trojans are already back under Lincoln Riley — tough enough to win in a rowdy environment meticulously crafted to torment them.
It was all of that until USC finally gave in for the first time this season — the only first that would come to fruition on a nightmare-inducing mid-October Saturday night that removed the Trojans from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Utah 43, USC 42.
The seventh-ranked Trojans had every opportunity to leave this house of horrors victorious for the last time on their Pac-12 farewell tour, but their defense wilted again and again, giving up 415 yards passing to Utah quarterback Cameron Rising that perfectly erased the spectacular 381 from USC quarterback Caleb Williams.
The season-high 12 penalties were partly to blame too. Riley’s Trojans, despite their early indications to the contrary Saturday, simply weren’t ready to win a game of this magnitude on the road.
The Trojans, 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12, were dropped into the middle of the exact kind of pressure cooker they haven’t been able to escape for much of the last decade. Even before USC vaulted itself into the top 10 to start this season, Utah had circled this game as the one it had to have if the Utes were going to repeat as Pac-12 champions and contend for a spot in the playoff.
Proof of the extra emotional emphasis could be seen on the Utes’ helmets, which were adorned with images of two fallen teammates, Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, each of whom died tragically within the last two years. It was no coincidence that USC was picked as the game to honor their memory and galvanize the home fans into a fervor.
Trailing 21-7 in the second quarter, Utah brought family members of Jordan and Lowe onto the field for a loving moment of applause, and the Utes promptly pulled to within 28-21 by halftime and tied the score at 28 on the opening drive of the second half. The message? They were not going to let their brothers down.
Utah is a proud program, and, coming off last season’s near-win over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, the Utes’ preseason ranking of No. 7 felt fully reasonable. But after dropping a heartbreaker at Florida in the season opener and falling flat at UCLA last week, Utah entered Saturday desperately needing a win to save its season.
All of these factors led me to think the Trojans were going to have to play the game of their lives to remain unbeaten.
From the opening kick, they appeared up to the task, following their fearless leader in Williams, who took off for 55 yards on the opening drive and never looked back. USC’s explosive skill players saw nothing but green grass in front of them in the early going, blasting off the ball and grabbing large swaths of Utah territory. Before the Utah student section could even fill out and complete the Rice-Eccles Stadium blackout, USC led 14-0.
Watching Riley’s offense find its stride in the first half of the season was fun, but this matchup with Kyle Whittingham’s unit loomed over the proceedings. Could USC run the ball against the always aggressive Utes front? Could Williams avoid the big mistake with the bright lights on and a national audience tuned in to see if the Trojans were actually for real?
The answers were resounding. Riley had clearly been holding some of his best material for this moment. The Trojans ran the ball with ease, but they didn’t really need to with the way Williams was spreading it from boundary to boundary, feeding his fellow transfer stars Jordan Addison and Mario Williams.
How confident was Riley his team could score whenever it wanted? At the end of the first half, USC got the ball at its own 15 with 24 seconds left and, instead of kneeling, the Trojans took a few bold shots down the field. They didn’t score, but their point was well-taken.
Neither team played much defense, but, before being critical: Did you happen to see the Alabama-Tennessee game? Somehow, when Southeastern Conference teams win with offense, it’s accepted. USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch would be the first to tell you his group has a long way to go.
But, as the Trojans defense has all season, it forced a huge turnover at a moment when it had to have one. With Utah threatening to tie the score at 35 in the third quarter, sinewy linebacker Eric Gentry put his helmet on the ball in running back Micah Bernard’s hands and popped it out. Nose tackle Stanley Ta’ufo’ou pounced on it — as if there were any doubt this opportunistic USC team was going to come up with the ball.
Williams could not capitalize, though. And, no surprise, as the fourth quarter began, Utah honored the memory of Jordan and Lowe again, asking for the crowd to come together for a “moment of loudness,” as if calling up to the heavens.
Sure enough, the Utes, with the help of four USC penalties, marched the field to tie it at 35.
They took their first lead of the game with 48 seconds left, 43-42, on a gutsy two-point conversion run by Cameron Rising.
USC will feel devastated heading into its bye week, but it still has everything to play for the rest of the way. Beat UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 19, and the Trojans are very possibly headed for the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas.
The playoff talk can calm now, though. The defense is at least a year away, and therefore, so is USC.