LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Utah entered the Pac-12 Championship as underdogs, despite beating USC on the road back in October.
All the hype throughout the week was about Lincoln Riley and the Trojans being one win away from clinching a berth in the College Football Playoffs. So Utah used that as motivation, and delivered a 47-24 beatdown on USC in front of 61,195 at Allegiant Stadium.
The crowd was loud and crazy, especially the Utah fans, which was just how quarterback Cameron Rising liked it. The Utes were able to feed off the crowd’s energy and they responded with huge plays on the gridiron. After all, players like Rising kept the naysayers criticism of the Utes’ backpedaling into the Title Game in the back of his mind, and wanted to make a statement.
“I felt we took it a little personal, kind of saw all of that, just disrespect,” Rising said. “Just wanted to go out and prove a point.”
Utah started slow out of the gates though, and fell behind 17-3 midway through the second quarter. The defense allowed USC to score on its’ first three drives of the game, including two touchdowns. However, a light bulb came on for the players towards the end of that period, and the Utes responded with two touchdowns to tie the game up at halftime.
Running back Ja’Quinden Jackson punched it in the endzone from eight yards out. Not to mention Rising threw a four-yard touchdown to wideout Money Parks. Rising thought it was a huge momentum shift, that gave the team confidence heading into the locker room.
“We knew what we had to go out and do, just wanted to go execute it,” he said. “Everybody was on the same page, just had to get them a little fired up, get their piss blowing pretty much.”
Utah’s offense came out firing on all cylinders in the second half, and its’ defense played lights out too. It was clear to the Utes’ defense that Trojan quarterback Caleb Williams lacked explosiveness in the second half. He pulled a hamstring on a scramble earlier in the game, and wasn’t the same gunslinger.
Coach Kyle Whittingham noticed that and made his defense turn up the intensity. The Utes’ defensive line mauled the Trojans’ big boys up front, and started to get to Williams on a consistent basis.
“When you see a quarterback become not as mobile as he could be or should be, you smell blood in the water and you start bring the head,” Whittingham said. “I mean that’s the strategy you want to use.”
USC (11-2) did manage to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter to pull within three points, but by that time Utah was already in a zone, and couldn’t be contained. Rising had connected with Marks again for a 57-yard touchdown in the third quarter. And once the fourth quarter started, Utah (10-3) took complete control of the game. Rising threw another long touchdown too, but this time it was to tight end Thomas Yassmin.
USC’s defense was fatigued, and started to miss several tackles. Utah’s offensive line opened gaping holes for the running backs to rush through. Which is why Jackson and Micah Bernard were able to rip off long touchdown runs. The Utes scored 20 unanswered points in the final period
Rising thought it was a testament for all of the Utes’ hard work throughout the week. The players didn’t mind pouring it on either, especially after Rising took a tremendous hit from a USC defender that knocked his helmet off, and sent him out of the game for a play. The signal-caller showed he was tough as nails by shrugging it off and returning to the game like nothing happened. And in his eyes, he displayed a heart of a champion. There’s a reason why he has six touchdown tosses over the last two games.
Now the Utes are back-to-back Pac-12 Champs, after achieving one of their most important goals of the season. And none of the success shocked Rising.
“It was destined, that’s what it felt like.”