Column: USC’s collapse against Utah in Pac-12 championship evokes mixed emotions

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LAS VEGAS — In the immediate aftermath, this one stings for USC.

With a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line, the Trojans fell to Utah in the Pac-12 football championship game 47-24. While the first year of the Lincoln Riley era has been a grand slam for the USC program, Friday night’s defeat was a gut punch. 


If you’re a glass-half-empty type of fan, here’s what’s most concerning:

For the second time this season, Utah made the USC defense look silly. In Utah’s 43-42 regular season win over USC, the Utes had 562 yards of offense. On Friday night, they went for 533. Utah ended the game by outscoring USC 44-7. 

The Trojans’ defense cost the team the opportunity to keep its national title dreams alive. The unit made identical mistakes to the regular season Utah defeat — missing tackles, allowing explosive plays and failing to get off the field on third downs. 

Fox color commentator Joel Klatt characterized USC’s defensive performance as the “worst tackling I’ve ever seen” in a tweet. 

It was brutal and a tad surprising. Where were the adjustments?

USC quarterback Caleb Williams injured his hamstring on the Trojans’ second touchdown drive in the first quarter and never looked right after, but he continued to play through the pain. It was an effort Riley called “as gutsy as a performance as you’ll ever see.”

But the Trojans’ defense couldn’t bail Williams out, which led to two turnovers in the fourth quarter in moments of desperation. 

Allowing 533 yards and 47 points in a win-and-you’re-in the College Football Playoff game will give USC fans nightmares for weeks to come.

But wake up soon Trojans fans, because if you’re a glass-half-full type of person, enjoy USC’s upcoming bowl game and get excited for next year.

Riley did so well in year one that the College Football Playoff was on the table. That fact alone is incredible. With the aid of the transfer portal for the second straight year, plus Williams, the Heisman Trophy favorite, coming back for his junior season, USC should be better next fall. They were close to the CFP in year one and because of that, there will be an expectation to make it in year two. 

Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Urban Meyer at Florida all won national championships in their second years with their respective schools and Riley will have a chance at joining that group. But of course questions about Riley’s defensive scheme will be asked all offseason, which will be deserved. It’s an issue that’s followed him from Oklahoma. 

Following USC’s defeat, Riley faced the first defensive query in his postgame presser.

“Does something need to change philosophically or schematically to put defenses on the field that are as good as the offenses?” he was asked. 

Riley responded: “I think tonight defensively we obviously played really well early. We had a lot of momentum and they seized it there in the second quarter. I thought in the second half, it felt like we were in position a lot defensively tonight, we dropped two or three very easy interceptions. Those are such big momentum plays. They made some of the competitive catches we didn’t make and then at the end of the game we panicked a bit trying to strip the ball and our tackling was very poor at the end. There are a lot of things we’ve got to correct going into this next one.”

Like Riley said, defensive corrections will be made heading into USC’s next game. But what will those tweaks look like next season?

That answer will determine the Trojans’ 2023 national championship credentials. 

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