LAS VEGAS, Nev. — There’s no denying the USC quarterback was the best player on the field Friday night at Allegiant Stadium.
After all, Caleb Williams was the Heisman favorite, guided the Trojans to an 11-1 record and had them one victory away from clinching a berth in the College Football Playoffs. So of course all eyes were going to be on the star gunslinger. He came out on a mission against the Utes too, and had a distinctive message on his fingernails.
Williams led USC on three scoring drives to start the game, including two touchdowns. And within a blink of an eye, the Trojans were up 17-3 on the Utes three minutes into the second quarter. The signal-caller’s two touchdown passes sent shockwaves throughout the crowd, and at that point it seemed like USC was going to run Utah off the field.
However, on a scrambling play later in that period a Utah defender delivered a huge hit on Williams, and when he rose back up to his feet he was gimpy.
From that point on Williams didn’t play the same. He lacked the amazing mobility that helped him move out of the pocket to extend plays. Williams throws were off too. Coach Lincoln Riley quickly noticed something wasn’t right with the Washington DC native.
“He popped his hamstring on the long run that was on a second or third drive of the game,” Riley said. “I asked him at one point ‘are you 50 percent’ and he wasn’t even close to 50 percent.”
Riley even thought about taking Williams out of the game, but the signal-caller demanded to stay in because he’s such a competitor. Still, even a gifted athlete like Williams couldn’t overcome a hamstring injury.
As painful as it was, Williams finished out the game. He even threw a 12-yard touchdown to wideout Mario Williams in the third quarter to pull the Trojans within three points. Regardless, by that time Utah’s defense knew Williams was limited in what he could do. So Kyle Whittingham turned up the heat on the pass rush, with more blitzes. And the Utes made Williams eat grass three times in the second half.
“Caleb is a tremendous player, maybe the most difficult quarterback to sack that we ever played against,” Whittingham said. “We banged him up and slowed him down.”
Despite having Utah defenders constantly in his face, Williams still managed to finish the game with 363 passing yards and three touchdowns. It was unfortunate that he couldn’t get no help from an abysmal rushing attack and a leaky defense. So the Utes kept their foot on the gas and never let Williams get comfortable.
After the game Williams was noticeably emotional about the loss. He even revealed the pain he was experiencing.
“You ever have an old rubber band, yeah, kind of felt like that,” Williams said.
The former five-star prospect quoted one of his favorite athletes in the late Kobe Bryant on why he stayed in the game despite the pain.
“He always said the game is bigger than what you’re feeling,” the 20-year old said. “I was in my head encouraging myself that the game is bigger than what I was feeling.”
At the end of the day it was Utah that won the Pac-12 Title and eliminated USC (11-2) from Playoff contention. Cameron Rising outdueled Williams on the biggest stage. Regardless, Williams has no reason to hang his head, even though he felt like he let the fans down by not delivering a Championship.
It remains to be seen if the loss effected his Heisman chances, but he earned a lot of respect from the Utes because of his perseverance. And Williams can live with that until the two teams meet again next season.