A game that saw fireworks at the opening with both teams scoring touchdowns on each of their first possessions settled into a methodical slugfest as Utah systematically controlled time of possession, tempo, and the line of scrimmage over the next two quarters in route to a 28-17 lead with 13 and a half minutes left to play.
The former injected jubilation into the 61,551 Coliseum crowd with a 30-yard interception returned for a touchdown, while the latter sent the stadium into delirium courtesy of a jaw-dropping 68-yard punt return that evoked hallowed memories of the legendary Reggie Bush.
Yet the Trojans 32-31 lead would be as fleeting as their now faint College Football Playoff hopes, as unheralded Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes’ improbable 26-yard scramble setup the game-winning field goal with the clock striking zero.
Now, with the Trojans staring at a two-game losing streak and the aftermath of shattered dreams, here are five major takeaways from Saturday night.
USC Vs Utah: What To Make of Trojans Deflating Defeat to Utes
Abandoning The Run Game
The offensive attack for the Trojans began promisingly, explosively, and definitively with the run setting up the pass. The Trojans ran for 69 yards on their opening drive culminating in a smooth and speedy 45-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lloyd down the far side sideline.
The second possession saw 26 more yards on the ground setting up a deep post play-action pass from Caleb Williams to Tahj Washington for 51 yards to the Utes one-yard line. That set up a Houdini-like option pitch from Williams to Branch for an effortless 1-yard scamper into the end zone.
But after 96 yards on the first two drives, the Trojans only rushed for 51 yards the rest of the game. Two moments seemed to spook Lincoln Riley from committing more to the ground attack.
The first was Williams getting stuffed on a third and two quarterback keeper on the Trojans third possession. The next was Lloyd’s fumble midway through the third quarter with the Trojans down 21-14. The lack of conviction to stay with the rush game allowed the Utes to keep seven back, crowd passing lanes, and disrupt the Trojans offensive rhythm.
The two elements for Williams to improve on from his supreme 2022 Heisman Trophy campaign were: down-the-field accuracy and being more decisive in the pocket. Caleb looked to have turned the corner earlier in the year with his downfield accuracy but that has now become a mirage.
Two play-action throws to Washington aside, Williams followed his three-interception performance against Notre Dame with 10+ yard balls consistently high and wide. He missed Branch by 10 feet on a rollout throw at the end of the half, and missed Duce Robinson consistently: once with a throw significantly behind his 6’5 target and another sailing well over his head that forced the Trojans to settle for a field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
When Williams wasn’t missing his throws, he simply wasn’t seeing open receivers. Two plays prior to his inexplicable fumble late in the game, he couldn’t identify a streaking Mario Williams wide-open in the end zone. Several times on the Trojans final two drives, he had open underneath receivers that he didn’t pull the trigger on. It led to Williams unnecessarily dancing in the pocket seeking bigger, more spectacular plays while wasting unnecessary energy, making him susceptible to more punishment and chewing more time off the clock. Caleb’s regression over the past three weeks has been one of the most shocking revelations in college football this season.
Yielding Another Breakout Performance
First, it was Utah’s Dalton Kincaid and Tulane’s Tyjae Spears last year, followed by Colorado’s Omarion Miller and Arizona’s Jacob Cowing the past few weeks. But Sione Vaki’s unreal nine carry, 68 rushing yards coupled with five receptions for 149 receiving yards and two touchdown dynamic performance, while serving as the Utes’ primary strong safety tops opposing player games in the Lincoln Riley era.
What makes this performance so much more devastating is how expected it was. The Utes were playing without their star quarterback in Cameron Rising, their All PAC-12 tight end Brant Kuithe, and without any semblance of a wideout rotation. This Utes team was relegated to their third year, third-string quarterback in Barnes, who had never thrown for more than 175 yards in any game.
I was expecting Vaki and Ja’Quinden Jackson to combine for 50 carries as the Utes only two credible offensive weapons. While they didn’t quite reach that milestone, the Utes dynamic duo combined for 41 total offensive touches for 335 total yards. Yet another black eye for the much-maligned and beleaguered Alex Grinch defense.
Too Many Linebacker Rotations
Vaki’s initial 53-yard touchdown reception on a wheel route followed by his 36-yard reception in the fourth quarter both came at the expense of freshman rush end Braylon Shelby. Vaki’s subsequent 15-yard inside slant touchdown reception in the third quarter was out-cutting Tacket Curtiss. While Barnes’ aforementioned 26-yard scramble was the result of Raesjon Davis losing contain and turning his back to the quarterback.
The extended rotation is causing confusion, inconsistency, and in the case of Gentry, who has been injury prone the past 18 months, a lack of rhythm due to not having enough reps. The Grinch scheme is flawed no doubt, but when coupled with too much unnecessary depth at his most important strategic position, it’s fatal. Grinch needs to tighten his rotation, particularly against the plethora of all-world skill players peppered over the rosters of Oregon and Washington.
The Riley Honeymoon Over
We are officially at the conclusion of the honeymoon period of the Riley era at USC. His identical 17-5 record through 22 games to Clay Helton over his first two full seasons, coupled with this latest loss sending the Trojans to 2-11 over their past 13 games against the AP Top 25, along with losing three straight games to the Utes when he was either tied or had the lead at halftime of each game, has officially removed the bloom from the proverbial rose.
But beyond the statistics and almost certainly being shut out of the CFP over his first two seasons despite having a Heisman quarterback, a Belitnikoff receiver in Jordan Addison last year, and the most talented running back USC has had since Bush and LenDale White in Lloyd, it’s the lack of accountability that’s most concerning. Saturday night’s postgame comments when he was puzzled and even looking for sympathy in having to manage “outside” expectations were laughable.
Mind you, these were expectations HE generated when calling the Coliseum “the Mecca of college football” while expecting to compete for conference and national championships immediately. His stunning relentlessness to only seek praise and avoid criticism with an amnesia-like stoicism makes one start questioning if USC paid $100M for a very good coordinator, rather than an elite, culture-building coach.