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Column: A genius loses his mind, a star is hobbled and USC goes bust in unthinkable fashion

Utah linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, left, forces USC quarterback Caleb Williams to lose the ball on a fumble.
Utah linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, left, forces USC quarterback Caleb Williams to lose the ball on a fumble during the Trojans’ 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game Friday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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The invincible quarterback was hobbled. First, the invincible quarterback lost his mobility.

Then, the genius coach lost his mind.

Eventually, the streaking USC Trojans limped and stumbled and went splat, their loveliest of dreams dying an ugly death in the desert.

Utah 47, USC 24, and who would have thought?

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This Pac-12 championship game Friday night at Allegiant Stadium was supposed to be a coronation for the No. 4-ranked Trojans, the stunningly brilliant debut season for coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams scheduled to culminate in the team’s first conference title in five years and its first College Football Playoff berth.

Then Williams suffered a first-quarter hamstring injury. And Riley suffered several second-quarter brain cramps. And the Trojans eventually lost their resilience against a relentless Utah team that rebounded from a 17-3 deficit to run over tacklers, rush past linemen and eventually crush the Trojans’ hopes with the brutality of an angry craps table.

USC went bust. And now, instead of competing for a national championship in the CFP final four, the Trojans must settle for the consolation prize of a secondary New Year’s Six bowl. They were the best Pac-12 team during the regular season and yet they don’t even get to play in the Rose Bowl, that honor going to Utah for a second straight year.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams slowly gets up with a bloodied right hand after being sacked.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams slowly gets up with a bloodied right hand after being sacked late in the fourth quarter Friday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“You come as far as this team and this program has come in the last 12 months, to get that close to winning a championship and more, obviously not getting it done, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” Riley said afterward.

It still has been a delightful surprise of a season, USC rebounding from a 4-8 debacle to go 11-2 and return to national prominence. But it could have been so much more. And after taking that two-touchdown lead early in the second quarter, it should have been so much more.

But when presented the chance to drive a stake through Utah’s heart, Riley became conservative, then just silly. The Trojans allowed the Utes to climb back into the game with two late first-half touchdowns to tie it. Then, in the second half, Utah took advantage of Williams’ limping and the usual poor USC defense to send thousands of Trojans fans trudging back to the Strip, their team suffering the night’s biggest loss in a city built by losers.

The Trojans essentially lost it when Williams lost it and Riley lost it.

It started with Williams, who injured the hamstring on a thrilling 59-yard, first-quarter run yet continued to play in obvious pain.

USC’s turnaround season ends in disappointing fashion as an injured Caleb Williams can’t rally USC in a 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game.

“The rest of the game I felt it, but I had something that I always go by,” Williams said. “Kobe [Bryant] always said the game is bigger than what you’re feeling.”

Throughout the night, Williams was the epitome of toughness. But he lost his ability to scramble and his ability to throw consistent pinpoint passes.

“He was not even close to 50% ... in terms of guys I’ve coached at that position, maybe the gutsiest performance I’ve ever seen,” Riley said.

Williams was 28-for-41 passing for 363 yards and three touchdowns, and, no, this should not affect his place atop the Heisman Trophy race. But his lack of mobility allowed him to be sacked seven times while turning him into a statue who rushed for only 21 yards on a dozen carries.

Even after Williams’ injury, the Trojans had the momentum. Then a couple of Riley decisions gave it away.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams covers his helmet with a towel during the final moments of a 47-24 loss.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams covers his helmet with a towel during the final moments of a 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Trojans scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, took a 14-3 lead, and seemed unstoppable. Then the coach basically stopped them.

On their third possession, Williams led USC downfield to a first and goal from the Utah three-yard line. After a stuffed run and two incompletions, the Trojans were faced with a fourth and goal.

If you’re USC, of course you go for the touchdown, right? Especially if you’ve been dominating the game on both sides of the ball? Especially since that touchdown could give you the feeling of an insurmountable lead?

Not this time. USC settled for a 20-yard field goal from Denis Lynch, and it felt like an opportunity missed.

Moments later, after Bryson Shaw recovered a fumble forced by Max Williams on the Utah 39-yard line, the Trojans had another chance to squelch the spirit of the Utes.

USC coach Lincoln Riley, center, leaves the field after Utah's 47-24 victory in the Pac-12 championship game Friday.
(Steve Marcus / Associated Press)

But once again, Riley whiffed, calling two running plays for Austin Jones even though he had been completely ineffective. The runs were stuffed, and USC faced a fourth-and-eight situation, and it seemed like the right time for a punt, maybe one of Williams’ trademark pooch kicks.

But no. This time, the Trojans decided to go for it, Williams’ pass was broken up, and a rejuvenated Utah team owned the ball, the momentum and the rest of the first half.

At the time, USC had outgained Utah 228-89.

But then, for the rest of the game, Utah outgained USC 444-191.

“I think tonight defensively we obviously played really well early, had a lot of momentum,” Riley said. “They seized it there in the second quarter.”

Did they ever. Check out the last two Utah drives of the half.

Eleven plays, 63 yards, and a touchdown on an eight-run bulldozing run by Ja’Quinden Jackson.

USC punted and ...

Fourteen plays, 81 yards, touchdown with two seconds left in the half on a four-yard pass from Cameron Rising to Jaylen Dixon.

The half ended in a 17-17 tie with Utah dancing off the field to a deafening roar while the Trojans quietly slinked away.

“We had some chances to surge, we had a chance to really separate in the game early,” Riley said. “We didn’t do it.”

The Utes took the lead for the first time — and for good — early in the third quarter when Rising hit Money Parks on a pass across the middle just as Trojans defenders Latrell McCutchin and Eric Gentry were colliding behind him in a play symbolic of USC’s evening.

It was messy. It was painful. And in the most unthinkable fashion, was over.


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