Can USC football recover from this? Four takeaways from the Trojans’ loss to Utah

USC's Caleb Williams stands on the sideline.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams stands on the sideline during the first half of the Trojans’ loss to Utah on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

As the weeks progressed, Caleb Williams punctuated each of his postgame news conferences with a joyful declaration of USC’s unblemished record. The numbers climbed: 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, all the way to 6-0 — the best start for a USC team since 2006.

But after No. 20 Utah shocked the No. 7 Trojans with a 43-42 win on Saturday, Williams was forced to choose a new message.

“Fight on,” Williams said as he rose from his news conference chair, his eyes red and swollen.

USC’s famous rallying cry couldn’t be more fitting for a team confronted with its first major adversity during a mostly charmed season. Saturday’s loss dashed USC’s hopes for an undefeated season, but the rest of the team’s goals — a conference championship, a shot at the College Football Playoff semifinals — remain alive. Now it’s a question whether this newly assembled group of super transfers and coaches can rally to chase them.

Caleb Williams had another huge game with five touchdown passes, but No. 7 USC lost 43-42 to No. 20 Utah and Cam Rising to drop to 6-1 this season.

Oct. 15, 2022


“I feel like it’s going to fuel the fire a lot,” running back Travis Dye said. “Just seeing the guys in the locker room right now, nobody’s head’s down. We have everything we want in front of us.”

Here are four takeaways from USC’s first loss of the year:


Empty in the backfield

Cameron Rising throws a pass for Utah.
Utah quarterback Cameron Rising throws a pass under pressure from USC’s defense Saturday in Salt Lake City.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

The best sack artists in the country came up empty against Utah’s Cameron Rising as USC, which entered the game leading the country with 24 sacks, didn’t drop the elusive quarterback for a loss once Saturday. Tuli Tuipulotu, who had seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss coming into the game, had just one tackle.

Without the big-play Band-Aids of takeaways (only one) and sacks, USC gave up a season-high 43 points and 562 yards during the shootout. Even the team’s typical fallback of a game-changing third quarter failed as Utah tied the Trojans 7-7 in the third and outgained them 173-82.

What was supposed to officially herald USC’s return to the elite echelons of college football turned into a nightmare for Lincoln Riley in a loss to Utah.

Oct. 15, 2022

“It’s probably the game we’ve tackled the worst,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “The yards after contact, the yards after catch, that’s been a strength of our defense right now. There was a little too much hitting, not enough wrapping up.”


Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid was shedding USC tacklers with ease all night as he rolled up 217 receiving yards and one touchdown on 15 catches.


Penalty party

Lincoln Riley talks to Caleb Williams.
USC coach Lincoln Riley speaks with quarterback Caleb Williams during the team’s loss to Utah Saturday in Salt Lake City.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

USC’s defense struggled, in part, because penalties extended drives. Stanley Ta’ufo’ou’s roughing the passer penalty negated a USC interception in the first quarter and kept Utah on the field on the next drive that ended with a touchdown. A second roughing flag on Nick Figueroa in the fourth quarter negated a third-down stop, one of three accepted USC penalties during Utah’s first drive of the fourth quarter.

USC was flagged 12 times for a loss of 93 yards compared to five penalties for 42 yards for Utah. USC’s miscues helped Utah convert six of 13 (46%) third-down attempts, including four of five in the fourth quarter. The Trojans were holding opponents to 37.7% on third down entering the game.

When asked of the imbalance in penalties, Riley said he thought the officiating was “really poor tonight, but we still should have won the game.”

“Does it make the job harder? Sure it does,” Riley said. “Yeah, you’d love to get every call every time. That’s not football though. … We’re a no-excuse program. Wish we wouldn’t have had to overcome it, but it is what it is. It’s still out there to go get.”


Adding injury to insult

Eric Gentry shouts from the sidelines.
USC linebacker Eric Gentry, who was injured, shouts on the sidelines during his team’s loss to Utah on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Eric Gentry stayed in the middle of a late-game huddle, right where you’d expect to see a middle linebacker, but Gentry was dressed in a black hoodie and hopping on one foot after suffering a first-half leg injury. He tried to hype the USC defense up on third and goal in the fourth quarter. When Gentry’s emotional presence wasn’t enough to keep Rising from scoring on a one-yard touchdown run and adding a two-point conversion to take the lead, USC’s offense was left to drive the field without one of its key playmakers.


Receiver Jordan Addison suffered a leg injury late in the third quarter and watched the final drive alone on the sideline, hunched over crutches. Gentry had a black walking boot on his left leg after appearing to injure his left ankle in the fourth quarter.

Riley didn’t have any significant updates on either starter, saying simply it’s likely fortunate the team is heading into a bye week. USC doesn’t play again until Oct. 29 at Arizona.


Hello again

USC's Jordan Addison gets tackled.
Utah safety Cole Bishop (8) tackles USC receiver Jordan Addison (3) during the first Saturday. Addison was injured later in the Trojans’ loss to the Utes in Salt Lake City.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Back in 2017, it seemed Josh Falo might emerge as the next fixture at tight end in USC’s passing offense. But that offense changed hands several times while an array of injuries derailed his development, leaving Falo to wait the better part of three years before he would make an impact again.

That moment finally came Saturday night — twice. Williams found Falo for two touchdown catches, one of which required the tight end to snag the ball with his outstretched arms.

“Incredible kid,” senior guard Andrew Vorhees said. “He makes those catches routinely in practice, so I wasn’t surprised he made them tonight.”

Falo wasn’t the only unexpected contributor to play a major role in the passing game at Utah. Michael Jackson III caught his first pass of the season and first touchdown of his college career in the waning moments of the fourth quarter Saturday, grabbing a screen pass that likely would have been destined for Addison if the star receiver hadn’t been hurt in the game.