For all those who thought that Utah’s hopes of repeating as Pac-12 champs and returning to the Rose Bowl Game had evaporated last week with a loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl, well, that assessment was premature.
The Utes made sure of that Saturday night — in dramatic fashion.
Before an announced crowd of 53,609 — the largest in school history — including Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, No. 20 Utah rallied again and again and captured a 43-42 victory in an offensive slugfest against No. 7 USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Utes seized their first lead of the night with 48 seconds remaining.
“That certainly has to go down as one of the most exciting games in Rice-Eccles history. What a performance by our football team,” said coach Kyle Whittingham.
“This keeps us in the (Pac-12) race. We’ve still got a lot of football left … We’re still in the hunt. I still believe that nobody will go through the Pac-12 schedule undefeated.”
Wearing special, hand-painted helmets that paid tribune to fallen teammates Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, and inspired by their memory, Utah kept its quest for another Pac-12 title alive and spoiled the Trojans’ perfect season in what could be USC’s final game in Salt Lake City, with the Trojans leaving for the Big Ten in 2024.
“Guys just didn’t stop believing,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “We had a common goal of wanting to go out here and execute and be clean and do everything we can, because having Ty and Aaron on your helmet makes it that much easier to dig deep and do everything you can to get the ‘W’.”
What a sendoff the Utes gave USC in SLC, and when the clock ran out, Utah fans stormed the field.
Rising scored a touchdown on 4th-and-1 on a 2-yard touchdown run with 48 seconds left, then Whittingham decided to go for the two-point conversion.
Nobody could blame him — since the Ute defense had trouble stopping USC’s explosive offense all night.
On the two-point conversion, Rising took the snap, looked to pass and then found an open path to the end zone to give Utah a one-point advantage.
As what turned out to be the game-clinching drive started, Whittingham talked to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
“If we score here and the clock is close to expiring, we’re going for two,” Whittingham said. “If there’s a couple of minutes left, we’ll kick the PAT. It played out exactly in our benefit, as good as we could have hoped.”
But, of course, on a night like this, it wasn’t over yet.
The Ute defense stopped the Trojans’ final drive over the final 38 seconds.
“They made the stop that they had to make,” Whittingham said about his defense. “That was the critical stop to win the football game.”
Rising completed 29 of 43 passes for a career-high 415 yards and two touchdowns and he ran 11 times for 60 yards and three TDs.
“The offense, from start to finish, was outstanding,” Whittingham said. “Cam Rising — competitor, warrior. You name it, he’s a champion.”
Early during the week, Whittingham underscored that tight end Dalton Kincaid needed to be more involved in the offense, and Kincaid got involved in a big way, catching 16 passes for a career-high 234 yards and a touchdown.
As a team, Utah rolled up 562 yards, compared to USC’s 556.
“Statistically, a lot of offensive fireworks. Both teams over 500 yards,” Whittingham said. “Cam had a terrific night. Running the football, he always gives us those key yards and conversions with his legs.
“Every game, he comes up with some timely, incredible, positive plays running the football.”
Whittingham said after the 42-32 loss to UCLA, he wanted to see his players respond.
Respond, they did.
Well, at least the offense did.
And so did the defense, when it mattered most.
The Utes trailed 21-7 early in the second quarter, and 28-14 later in the period, but they didn’t collapse.
“It was unwavering belief,” Rising said. “No matter how it’s going, we’re just going to believe in each other.”
Whittingham liked how his team answered every time it faced adversity.
“I don’t think there was a turning point. It was just a matter of us continuing to fight and scratch and claw way into the game each time,” Whittingham said.
“It was a scoring contest. Field goals were not going to be in the equation in this game. In fact, as we drove the football, I’d tell Andy, ‘You’re in four-down territory once we hit midfield.’ That’s the way this game was going … It was touchdowns or broke.”
Rising was determined to will his team to victory, no matter what.
“We just wanted to come out here and battle. We’re going to give it our all,” he said. “We were looking forward to playing and we wanted to make sure we that represented ‘22’ well, having that on our helmet.”
USC entered the weekend No. 1 in the country in turnover margin, No. 1 in interceptions and No. 1 in sacks.
The Trojans forced one fumble but finished with zero sacks.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams competed 25 of 42 passes for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Mario Williams hauled in four catches for 145 yards and Jordan Addison had seven receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown.
But it wasn’t enough for the Trojans to remain undefeated.
“It was a matter of just staying after it; a never-say-die attitude. I’m proud of our guys and it was great to get that win with Ty Jordan’s and Aaron Lowe’s mothers here at the game,” Whittingham said.
“Internally, we had dedicated this game to our fallen teammates. How rewarding to be able to give those mothers the game ball in the locker room after the game.”
Utah’s defense stiffened in the closing seconds, as safety R.J. Hubert broke up a Williams pass as time ran out.
The mindset for the Ute defense on the last drive was “just to prevent them from getting past the 50-yard line,” said linebacker Karene Reid. “It was pretty obvious that they needed a field goal. We backed up and kept everything in front of us.”
In the end, Utah has knocked off a top 10 team, and the complexion of the season has changed again.
This time, in a good way.
“They all count as one, but this seems like a pretty big win on a national stage against a top (10) team,” Whittingham said.
“It’s great for our brand, great for our program, great for our university and the community. A lot of positives with that.”
Utah has a bye next week before visiting Washington State on Oct. 27.
EXTRA POINTS: The Utes won their 12th consecutive home game … Scouts from 11 NFL teams were in attendance … USC running backs coach Kiel McDonald coached the same position at Utah last season … Utah’s Ben Norton, a Utah State transfer, handled kickoff duties Saturday and boomed the opening kickoff into the end zone for a touchback.