LAS VEGAS — To listen to a lot of national experts, this was supposed to be No. 4 USC’s coronation as Pac-12 champions.
The way those pundits saw it, Trojans riding triumphantly into the College Football Playoff with Heisman Trophy favorite Caleb Williams and a bevy of high-profile transfers, under first-year coach Lincoln Riley, was a mere formality.
But those that discounted No. 11 Utah in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium perhaps didn’t realize the grit and resolve the program has shown throughout the past two seasons.
The Utes ruined USC’s conference title and CFP hopes with a 47-24 thrashing of the Trojans.
And, at least on this night, Utah became the talk of the country.
The Utes now have captured back-to-back Pac-12 championships and back-to-back Rose Bowl berths.
“We definitely got the message loud and clear that a lot of people were underestimating us and not giving us much of a chance in this game,” said coach Kyle Whittingham.
“That’s the wrong group of players to do that to. Historically, we’ve been a chip-on-the-shoulder type of a program … feeling a little bit disrespected. It shook up a bit of a hornet’s nest when that happened.”
Said Utah quarterback Cam Rising, who earned Pac-12 championship game MVP honors, “I felt we took it a little personal, kind of saw all that. “Just wanted to go out and prove a point.”
Utah (10-3) was an inexorable force over the final three quarters, overcoming an early 17-3 deficit, outscoring USC 44-7 over the final 42 minutes.
“I want to give Utah a lot of credit,” Riley said. “They battled their way back into this game. They played better than us today. They certainly deserved to win tonight.”
And what seemed highly improbable just a couple of weeks ago after a 20-17 loss at Oregon, the Utes are returning to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 in Pasadena against a Big Ten opponent.
“It was destined,” Rising said. “That’s what it felt like.”
Speaking of the Big Ten, Ohio State, which handed Utah a Rose Bowl loss last New Year’s Day, owes the Utes big time for knocking off USC (11-2). The Buckeyes might be the beneficiary of Utah’s win and will likely earn a spot in the CFP.
The Utes handed the Trojans both of their losses this season.
“Obviously to not get it done,” Riley said, “is a tough pill to swallow.”
Utah won this one the old-fashioned way. Not only did the Utes earn it, but they also controlled the line of scrimmage, stopped the run and ran the ball effectively against the USC defense.
Utah limited USC to 56 yards rushing and it sacked Williams, who injured his hamstring on a 59-yard run in the first quarter, hampering his ability to run after that, seven times.
The Trojans converted just 1 of 12 third-down attempts
“We talked about imposing our will tonight,” Rising said. “That’s really what we wanted to go out and do.”
It’s not easy beating the same team twice in the same season but Utah accomplished the feat in overwhelming fashion after winning by one point, 43-42, on Oct. 15 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Utes didn’t need any last-minute heroics this time around.
Utah fell behind by two touchdowns early on, just like it did against USC in the first meeting at Rice-Eccles.
And the Utes had the Trojans right where they wanted them.
Utah tied the score 17-17 at the end of the second quarter. Moments after Allegiant Stadium staged a “Moment of Loudness” — carrying on Utah’s third-quarter home-game tradition honoring fallen Utes Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe — the Utes seized their first lead of the game.
On third and 19, Rising threw a strike to Money Parks, who bounced off a defender and raced 57 yards for a touchdown to make it 24-17 for the Utes.
That capped 21 unanswered points by Utah, and it was a lead the Utes would not relinquish.
Right after USC scored to cut it to 27-24, tight end Thomas Yassmin scored on a 60-yard touchdown pass that seemed to suck the life out of the Trojans.
Later, safety R.J. Hubert stepped in front of USC tight end Lake McRee at the Utah 10-yard line with 6:57 remaining to essentially seal the win.
It marked just the fourth interception that Williams had thrown all season.
After that, the Utes tacked on two more TDs, including a 53-yarder by running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, who finished with 105 yards and two touchdowns.
Early on, USC had a bunch of big plays, including a spectacular 59-yard run by Williams and a 50-yard reception by Tahj Washington, while taking advantage of some blown coverages in Utah’s secondary.
The Trojans also converted on fourth down twice on their first two drives, leading to touchdowns.
But the Utes made enough plays to stay in the game.
“We never panicked,” Whittingham said. “It was a situation where I was more disappointed with the missed tackles. The tackling wasn’t real sharp at the beginning of the game.”
The Trojans looked dominant, taking a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter, and they got the ball back after a Jaylen Dixon catch and fumble.
At that point, it appeared USC was on the verge of running away with the title.
“We had a chance after we got the fumble to separate there,” Riley said.
But the Ute defense shut down Williams and the USC offense on the ensuing series, forcing a three-and-out.
Williams ran only eight plays over the final 12 minutes of the second quarter.
The Ute offense then pieced together an 11-play, 63-yard drive that took 6:33 off the clock — capped by an 8-yard run by Jackson.
One of the crucial plays of that possession was left guard Keaton Bills recovering a Micah Bernard fumble.
Not only did the Utes cut the deficit to 17-10, but they also kept Williams off the field for an extended period.
And when Utah got the ball back, Gabe Reid sacked Williams for a 7-yard loss and the Trojans had to punt.
With 1:40 left in the half, the Utes methodically marched down field again on a drive that featured a lot of the tight ends.
On that drive, Dalton Kincaid had receptions of 12, 10 and 11 yards, and Yassmin hauled in a key 21-yard pass to give Utah the ball at the USC 4-yard line.
One play later, Kincaid dropped a pass in the end zone, but on second and 4, Dixon caught a 4-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left to tie the game at 17 at halftime.
For the second straight week, the Utes scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes of the first half.
On the final kickoff of the half, USC lost 23 yards down to its own 3-yard line. The Trojans were just glad it was halftime. The momentum was squarely in Utah’s hands.
And that continued into the second half.
Now, the Utes have repeated as Pac-12 champs and they’re headed to Pasadena for the second year in a row.
“Excited to go to the Rose Bowl again,” Whittingham said.
EXTRA POINTS: Announced attendance was 61,195, the first sellout of a Pac-12 championship game at a neutral site … USC center Brett Neilon was carted off the field midway through the fourth quarter after sustaining an injury.