From the spectacular hire of Lincoln Riley last November to the magical moments consistently created by its star quarterback, every impossible move in USC’s extraordinary annual turnaround last year dashed any sensible expectation, its astonishing run to but intervene Courageous destiny
The Trojans were kicked out of the Pac-12 basement, scratching and clawing their way back from a 4-8 season college football playoff, They came back at the last minute in Corvallis, got bullied in Tucson, roared off their rivals in the Rose Bowl. But by Friday night, a journey that few expected had come to an abrupt, unceremonious end on the doorstep of a dream season in a 47-24 loss to Utah.
It ended with Caleb Williams limping, unable to avoid a brutal Utah pass rush, and USC’s defense unable to tackle Leakes, a spirit. It ended in the most brutal of fashions, with Utah piled on and USC helpless, for the first time all season, to change its fortunes.
“You’re so close to winning the championship and so much more,” Riley said, “that’s a tough pill to swallow.”
USC couldn’t handle much without its Heisman-bound quarterback at full strength. Williams did his best to fight through severe pain in his left hamstring, which he “popped” on a 59-yard run in the first quarter. Riley was forced to change the game plan, relying more on short passes than usual, without the use of his quarterback’s legs, but even so, Williams played the entire game despite a cut on not only his hamstring but his pinky finger. Passed in the field. He threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns while limping around the pocket, even as Riley tried several times to replace his injured passer, who begged to stay in the game.
Riley said of Williams, “It’s about as great a performance as you’ll ever see.”
As he continued to fight, Williams said he tried to channel the lessons he learned from Kobe Bryant.
“He always said the game is bigger than what you’re realizing,” Williams said. “I was encouraging myself in my head that the game is bigger than what I was realizing.”
But the quarterback’s relentless pursuit left him facedown on the turf at the end of the fourth quarter, as a sea of red roared through Allegiant Stadium, his team on its way to the Rose Bowl.
Where USC will spend its bowl season will not be determined until Sunday. With a bid to the College Football Playoff semifinals almost certainly out of reach, it seems likely that the Trojans will end up in one of the six bowls remaining in the new year, which is a fitting consolation after an 11-2 season.
However, it did not seem like that on Friday.
Riley said, “It takes a long time to get here, especially not being able to finish where we started.”
To think, it must have been barely a year since Riley took the reins of a football program that had fallen so rapidly from grace. Few Trojan believers would have imagined that the most painful nadir that USC, with a decade of baggage in its wake, could achieve under a coach like Riley, one of the most respected young minds in the game. Still few could have anticipated USC football being rebuilt overnight, turning one of the weakest points in program history into one of the brightest points in the course of a single season.
At this time last year, an 11-2 finish in Riley’s first season and a New Year’s Six bowl bid might have felt like a remarkable turnaround, a great situation. Perhaps that will be the feeling in the weeks from now, when calm can prevail and necessary context can be considered.
But on Friday, USC’s failure to win its first Pac-12 title since 2017 and earn its first bid to the College Football Playoff was all front and center. Even though Riley did her best to put it in perspective. “We’re not going to walk around like it’s a funeral, are we?” Riley said.
This was certainly felt in the second half, with USC unable to stop the torrent from Utah, which wasted no time in preying on the Trojans’ weaknesses. The Utes passed for 533 yards, which was less than the success they had at USC in October, when they handed the Trojans their first loss.
The script will feel painfully familiar on Friday night. Williams rose from the start, showing her usual magic in the field. But as he crisscrossed Utah’s front in the first quarter, looping repeatedly through one defender, evading another, then sprinting into the open field, he and the Trojans would pay the price. His hamstring affected him more and more as the game went on.
For a while, it seemed that the best defense in college football was all but helpless to stop USC’s star quarterback. By the end of the first quarter, he had carried Utah for 110 yards and two touchdowns through the air as well as 76 more on the ground.
At 17-3, it seemed only a matter of time before the Trojans hit the gas pedal and cruised to a comfortable Pac-12 title.
But like their October meeting, Utah refused to budge when the Trojans cruised to a two-touchdown lead. USC’s defensive tackles slowed down the drive. By the third quarter, with Williams barely able to move around the pocket, it had become a full-blown horror show.
Still, he stuck it out. Even if USC’s defense is derailed, Williams will do his best to bring USC back from the brink. Down 10 points in the fourth quarter, he hit Jordan Addison on one leg for a 48-yard gain.
But after a year of magical moments and lucky twists, Williams is back on the edge of the red zone, ready to make a comeback through the pain. He threw an interception instead, leaving USC just short of the dream season it wanted.