SALT LAKE CITY — After the Utah offense had gashed USC to the tune of 562 yards and six touchdowns, the last on a Cam Rising keeper on fourth-and-goal from the one, the Utes gave the Trojans one last chance.
Down by one with 48 seconds left, Utah opted to go for two and the win. All USC needed was a stop to escape the rocking Rice-Eccles Stadium with a win.
But as Rising sat in the pocket looking for an open receiver, he there was none to be found. So he took off himself and reached the ball across the goal line to put the Utes ahead for the first time all night.
The Utah defense took care of the rest, knocking down Caleb Williams’ heave at the buzzer as the 20th-ranked Utes ended the seventh-ranked Trojans’ undefeated season, 43-42.
“We were one inch away on a lot of different occasions from winning this game,” head coach Lincoln Riley said after his first loss at USC. “And several times very close to running away with it.”
As close as USC (6-1, 4-1 in Pac-12) came, it was a game the Trojans probably didn’t deserve to win. Yes, the offense gained 556 yards, but the defense was abysmal and USC committed 11 penalties leading to 88 yards.
Many of those were suspect calls from an officiating crew that struggled to control the game. The worst was a roughing-the-passer flag in the first quarter in which Stanley Ta’ufo’ou shoved Rising in the back. The pass had been intercepted, but on the next play Utah scored its first touchdown of the game.
It was one of those “close to running away with it” moments that Riley lamented.
“The officiating was really poor tonight,” Riley said. “But we still should have won the game.”
In the swirl of the defeat, it might be difficult to remember how hot USC was at the start.
After the Utes took away on the first three plays of the game, Williams escaped for a 55-yard scramble. Two plays later, Travis Dye punched it in for a touchdown.
Williams bent over as he howled into his clenched fists, savoring the taste of the first blood drawn in this contest, and the sounds of silence of the 53,609 fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a record for the venue.
With Utah (5-2, 3-1) choosing to take away deep and intermediate routes, head coach Lincoln Riley began attacking the flats in the second drive with masterful play calling. A reverse to Jordan Addison, a play-action screen pass to Dye, a flat pass to Mario Williams and another to Tahj Washington after being sent in motion got USC to the goal line.
On first-and-goal came the coup de grace.
USC lined up trips on the left side of the ball and no one wide on the opposite. Addison went in motion and Caleb Williams found him sweeping to the left. Josh Falo’s block cleared two tacklers and Addison found the end zone.
That opened it up for deep passes, particularly to Mario Williams for 66 and 36 yards on his next two catches, the latter a Willie Mays-esque snag.
But the Utes got back into the game when a roughing-the-passer penalty erased an interception and allowed Utah to score on the next play. Utah closed the half with two touchdown drives. The first moved 60 yards in four plays, the second 70 in five.
When Rising found Devaughn Vele for a 16-yard score with 1:16 left in the half, the black-clad crowd was jumping up and down.
Rising repeatedly punished the USC defense with his arm, feet and even his hands for his first career reception. He threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for 60 and three.
The Ventura native went to tight end Dalton Kincaid every chance he got for 15 receptions and 217 yards as USC struggled to find any defender that could match up with the 6-foot-4 senior, or even just to tackle him.
“It was probably the game we tackled the worst,” Riley said. “The yards after contact, the yards after catch.”
It was a touchdown pass to Kincaid that tied the game at 28, then a Rising rush that tied it again at 35 with 10:55 to play.
USC went back ahead on a screen pass to Michael Jackson III for his first catch and touchdown of the year.
But the Trojans left 6:15 on the clock, far too much time for the Utes against the USC defense. And USC didn’t have enough firepower to get in field goal range with Addison knocked from the game with a leg injury.
As the fans stormed the field around him, Williams still lay on the field before slowly exiting to the locker room. When he appeared at the post-game press conference, his eyes were red.
“I hate losing,” he said. “We aren’t going to go undefeated, but that’s not the end all, be all for this team.”
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