The Utes remain in contention for the Pac-12 championship game berth with only one conference loss
When the University of Utah offense trotted back onto the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium for what would be its final drive on Saturday night, coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig had a plan in place.
Down by a touchdown and unable to stop No. 7 USC’s offense much of the night, if the Utes scored a touchdown to get within a point with the clock close to expiring, they were going for the two-point conversion and the lead. Furthermore, Whittingham and Ludwig had even settled on a play-call for the conversion attempt.
In the end, it all worked out.
Cam Rising’s keeper on fourth-and-goal from the 1 brought the 20th-ranked Utes to within a point with 48 seconds left. Ludwig then went right back to Rising, who ran in the conversion to cap the scoring as Utah, outplayed for the majority of the night, outlasted the Trojans, 43-42, in front of a record crowd of 53,609 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Rising was a force of nature, finishing with 475 yards of total offense and five total touchdowns, including a career-high 415 yards on 29-for-43 passing. Sixteen of those completions went to tight end Dalton Kincaid, who finished with a career-high 16 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown reception. The 16 catches came on 16 targets.
The win keeps the Utes (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) in contention for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game. After they lost to UCLA last week, a second conference loss would have essentially eliminated them from the conversation.
“It played exactly in our favor, as good as we could have hoped,” Whittingham said. “They all count as one, but this seems like a pretty big win, on a national stage, against the seventh-ranked team. Great for our brand, great for our program, great for our university.”
Added Rising: “Unwavering belief. Guys just didn’t stop believing, and we all had a common goal, to execute and just be clean.”
Utah’s defense spent much of the night getting bludgeoned by USC’s explosive Caleb Williams-led offense, but after finally taking the lead, Utah had no intention of giving it up. Aided by a pass interference penalty on Clark Phillips III, the ensuing Trojans drive reached USC’s own 40-yard line. It got no further, as Williams was flushed out of the pocket, flinging a desperation pass downfield as time expired. That pass fell incomplete, setting off a crowd-storming after what was a season-saving victory.
Williams finished 25-for-42 for 381 yards and five touchdown passes as USC totaled 556 yards of offense, six less than Utah.
“You guys can see, their team is full of explosive players, so we knew it was going to be a challenge for us,” said linebacker Karene Reid, who finished with seven tackles and a sack. “They have to play us for four quarters, so that just shows the resiliency of our defense, our team, and our coaches.”
With the defense on its heels most of the night, especially in the first quarter when USC registered seven plays of at least 10 yards, Rising looked up to the task in trying to match Williams.
Utah trailed, 28-21, out of the halftime locker room, but Rising accounted for all 75 yards of a game-tying drive, including a 9-yard reception from Devaughn Vele, the first of his career. A 4-yard touchdown pass to Kincaid knotted the score at 28 at the 12:02 mark of the third quarter.
“He’s been so incredible for us ever since he took over for us last year,” Whittingham said of Rising. “It’s just been a great feeling to have him at the controls of the offense.”
USC took the lead right back via a Josh Falo 11-yard touchdown pass from Williams, and just as it appeared Utah would again match the Trojans, momentum swung.
Again starting at his own 25, Rising engineered things deep into USC territory, including a 3-yard run on fourth-and-2 that featured his second attempt to pick up the third yard. On third-and-3 from the Trojans’ 28, Rising hit running back Micah Bernard over the middle inside the 10.
Bernard turned, got inside the 5, took on defenders and fumbled after he got popped by linebacker Eric Gentry. USC recovered the fumble but was forced to punt on the ensuing drive.
Bernard was otherwise outstanding, finishing with 98 total yards on 18 touches and a first-quarter touchdown.
Utah, one of four teams along with USC, Oregon and UCLA that are realistically alive for the Pac-12 championship game, has an open week before traveling to Washington State on Oct. 27.